Statistics are interesting things. Victoria Police statistics show that less that 1 per cent of people generating crime statistics are Sudanese. Not exactly a crime wave. And yet, this handful of Sudanese people committing crimes makes front page of The Age, replete with fears of a Melbourne Cronulla-style riot. What about the number of White people committing crimes? British born? Italians? Greeks? What about the 99 per cent?
No, African crime is a focus for the media.
It is also a focus for law enforcement. Crime statistics (and media reporting) tell us a lot about who is being targeted by the police. For example, when police target speeding, charges relating to speeding offences go up. When they target people going through stop signs, these statistics go up. Similarly when they target African youth, African crime statistics go up.
In our legal centre’s experience, numerous crime statistics involving Africans are police generated. This means that there is no underlying crime that causes the police interaction. Instead, it is the interaction between the police and youth itself that generates charges of resist police, assault police, offensive language and fail to give name and address — among others.
How many Africans are stopped for a "routine intercept", the official term for what is known colloquially as "driving while black"? How many youths are stopped for wearing caps backwards and baggy trousers, apparently signs of "gang" membership to those in the know? Stereotyping by police leads to over-policing. And unfortunately, the targeting of non-crimes redirects police resources away from investigations into family violence and stalking offences and hate-related crimes.
It is critical to realise that crime statistics are not statistics on successful prosecutions. Numerous African clients of mine have been arrested numerous times without being charged. Some of these arrests are for assault matters. Briefs may not be authorised, charges may never be laid, or may be withdrawn by the police or dismissed after hearing, and yet they all still rate as a crime statistic. Post-prosecution crime statistics would paint a more truthful picture. Also, because of the relatively small numbers of crimes that we are dealing with here, activities by a tiny few committing a large number of crimes can skew the figures.
Let’s be serious. We are talking about less than 1 per cent of the total crime statistics, yet the topic fascinates the media and the police. The media’s fascination with African crime causes the stereotyping and stigmatisation of an entire community of people because of their race. Racist assumptions of criminality flow from media reports. Juries may then find it easier to convict when evidence is equivocal. Reports about African crime are used by police to justify stopping and searching Africans to investigate whether they might have committed a crime (racial profiling).
Violent crimes committed by people regardless of their racial background is a terrible thing and Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Tim Cartwright and Impower’s Abeselom Nega both agree that crime is ultimately not solved by police locking up people.
It is solved by tackling the root causes of crime: socio-economic disadvantage and discrimination. Crime statistics across the community could be reduced by re-funding TAFEs and other forms of education, properly funding agencies that support and empower youths and spending money on meaningful local job creation.
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