Police Should Talk, Not Shoot


Why is it that in NSW we tolerate a police force and not a police service? While other police services around the world work on a culture of policing by consent, the NSW police force continues to rely on strength, numbers and brute force to impose its will. It’s time that changed.

The NSW Government is currently undertaking a review of the NSW Police Act. Public concern about the way NSW police use force makes it clear that this review must look at the state's underlying police culture. Over the last two years a series of high profile cases have seen vulnerable people at the receiving end of unacceptable police violence. 

The list of recent cases includes the repeated tasering and death of Roberto Curti, the killing of Adam Salter, the tasering of Aboriginal men like Philip Bugmy, the beating of a man in police custody, the repeated tasering of a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy and police violence at Mardi Gras.

Given this sorry history, it is time for NSW Police to stop seeing brute force as their main tool for controlling communities and instead focus on gaining community respect and co-operation. Policing by consent is the proven way to do this.

“Policing by consent” has been the cornerstone of English policing since the establishment of London's Metropolitan Police in 1829. This culture of working with the community to jointly enforce law and order came from the top in England. In the words of Sir Robert Peel, the Tory founder of modern policing: "The police are the public and the public are the police."

Fundamental to the English approach is that the police work with, and for, their local community; and that they derive their legitimacy to enforce and uphold the law, from the consent given by the community they serve. English police continue to adhere to the nine basic principles of policing set out by Peel in 1829. While these principles are standard fare in the UK, from a NSW perspective they read like a radical remodelling of police culture. They are:

  1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
  2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
  3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
  5. Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
  6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
  7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
  9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.

Policing by consent does not rule out the use of force. However, such force should only be exercised to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order, and only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is insufficient.

While no one would say that English police are above criticism, especially after the London riots of 2011, there is no doubt that English “Bobbies” are viewed by the public with genuine affection. They have a far more approachable public image than members of the NSW Police Force. The same is true of other more community-focused police such as the Canadian Mounties.

In England, the culture of policing by consent is reinforced at all levels of policing.  As recently as December 2012, the Deputy Commissioner of the Independent Police Complaints Commission said that:

“As if so often said, Britain has a long tradition of policing by consent. The British police are not routinely armed, and most rarely draw their batons. The model by which police are trained to use force emphasises 'tactical communication' – talking to people – where possible before force is used."

In sharp contrast, policing in NSW is almost ignorant of the concept of consent. Perhaps our convict roots are responsible for a policing culture that lacks transparency, is inward looking and more tolerant of violence. 

In NSW, government support for the use of force as the primary tool for police was reaffirmed in 2006. The then NSW Labor government, with the support of the Coalition opposition, legislated to undo a 2002 law and change the organisation’s name back to the NSW Police Force from the NSW Police Service.

While English policing emphasises communication and limiting the use of force the NSW Police Force have adopted a “Tactical Options Model" for policing that focuses on control. The NSW model states that for NSW Police:

“The ultimate goal is control of the situation. You need advantage for control.”

It then directs police to choose from a variety of “control methods” including batons, firearms, Tasers, capsicum spray, negotiation and tactical disengagement, ultimately directing police to:

“Evaluate the propensity for control -v- injury (Reasonable force)”

The contrast is striking. Where the English model emphasises consent and limiting the use of force, the NSW model emphasises control and what type of force is best suited to seizing control.

It is that readiness to resort to violence that saw multiple police give chase to young Roberto Curti only to cuff him, capsicum spray him and brutally and repeatedly Taser him until he showed no signs of life. No doubt NSW Police were “getting control of the situation” when three of them repeatedly punched Corey Barker while he was in a police cell on the North Coast of NSW. 

It was a simplistic resort to violence that saw Adam Salter shot dead by NSW police when he was suffering a serious mental illness in his father’s kitchen. It is difficult to explain the police violence at this year’s Mardi Gras other than through a policing culture that is quick to move to brute force when it feels threatened by a community that is different.

Communities that live in fear of their police don’t provide them with the co-operation and information that is essential for police to succeed. It’s a harder job to earn respect than simply to demand it. A commitment to gaining consent and mutual respect, especially from more vulnerable groups such as Indigenous and LGBTI communities, young people and migrants will certainly reap rewards for NSW Police. 

This isn’t a revolutionary call. If nineteenth century conservative politicians could adopt and promote a culture of policing by consent then surely it isn’t beyond those 21st century pollies who inhabit the NSW Parliament. However if there is one thing I have learned from three years in this job, it is never to underestimate the political power of the NSW Police.  Meanwhile the violence continues — and most politicians just turn a blind eye.

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