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Alcohol-related crime in the Australian Capital Territory

The prevalence of alcohol-related problems associated with licensed premises in entertainment precincts is an area of growing concern among the ACT community, police and licensing authorities (ACT DJCS 2008). This section of the report provides a brief overview of findings from the AIC’s analysis of data provided by ACTP and observational research for the period prior to the introduction of the strategies delivered by ACTP during the 2009–10 summer period. The section ends with a discussion of other important contextual factors, including the review of liquor licensing legislation and proposed changes to ACTP, which have been considered as part of the current evaluation.

Characteristics of alcohol-related crime in the Australian Capital Territory

Given the relationship between alcohol and violence (Morgan & McAtamney 2009), a key indicator of alcohol-related crime in the Australian Capital Territory is the prevalence of assault. An analysis of recorded offence data provided to the AIC by ACTP shows that there has been a general increase in the number of recorded assault offences in the Australian Capital Territory over the past four years (see Figure 1). There also appears to be a seasonal pattern, with the number of assaults per month higher in the period from October to March than in the period between April and September.

Figure 1: Number of recorded assault offences in the Australian Capital Territory, July 2005–June 2009, by month

figure 1

Note: Assault includes aggravated assault, non-aggravated assault and assault police. Excludes other acts intended to cause injury

Source: ACT PROMIS database

The total number of recorded assault offences was higher in 2008–09 (n=2,547) than in the three years prior and the number of recorded offences has increased 25 percent from 2005–06 levels (n=2,040; see Figure 1). Figure 2 displays the number of recorded assault offences in Civic and Manuka/Kingston for the four year period up to and including June 2009 (ie prior to the intervention period). There was a noticeable increase in the number of recorded assault offences in Civic, consistent with the trend for the whole of the Australian Capital Territory. In Kingston/Manuka, the number of assault offences per month is on average much lower, and while consistently low, there is little evidence of a trend up or down over the four year period.

Figure 2: Number of recorded assault offences in Civic and Kingston/Manuka, July 2005–June 2009, by month

  figure 2

Note: Assault includes aggravated assault, non-aggravated assault and assault police. Excludes other acts intended to cause injury. Civic includes all offences recorded as having occurred in the city. Kingston/Manuka includes all offences recorded as having occurred in Kingston and streets located within the Manuka entertainment precinct (including Bougainville St, Canberra Ave, Captain Cook Ct, Flinders Way, Franklin St, Furneaux St and Palmerston Lane)

Source: ACT PROMIS database

There are several possible explanations for the apparent increase in recorded assaults in Civic. An increase in the number and intensity of police operations conducted within the Civic area may have lead to an increase in the number of offences detected and subsequently recorded by police. Another possible explanation is that the rate of reporting of assault by members of the public, typically low when compared with property offences, has increased. The Australian Capital Territory currently has one of the highest reporting rates for assault in Australia (49.4% of most recent incidents reported) according to the ABS (2010) Crime Victimisation Survey 2008–09 and this may have increased in recent years. An increase in the frequency of community events, growth in the number of attractions within the Civic area, or an increase in the number of residential complexes may have led to an increase in the number of people living or visiting the Civic region at any one time, in turn leading to a subsequent increase in the number of total assaults.

However, an actual increase in the rate of assault may also have been driven by changes in the make-up of licensed premises within the Civic entertainment precinct. New licenses are granted each year in the Australian Capital Territory and, while being offset by the number of licenses that do not get renewed (ACT Auditor-General 2007), may contribute to changes in the licensed environment in entertainment precincts. It may also have been as result of changes in the patronage of new and existing premises, or in the excessive consumption of alcohol. Determining the relationship between alcohol and violence in the Australian Capital Territory is somewhat difficult. Until recently, ACTP did not have the capacity to record if offences involved alcohol within their incident management system, PROMIS. A field has now been introduced that enables police to record whether an incident involved alcohol. Prior to this, the primary means of establishing alcohol involvement in violent offences was through obtaining self-report data from offenders arrested by police and admitted to the watch house, or from a visual assessment recorded by the admitting officer.

Table 4 shows the number of people charged with assault-related offences in the ACT watch house between 2007 and 2009, and the proportion of offenders who admitted to consuming alcohol prior to the offence being committed. With the exception of assault causing grievous bodily harm, which accounts for a relatively small number of all assaults, the proportion of offenders who had consumed or were affected by alcohol peaked in 2009. Almost two-thirds of all offenders admitted to the watch house and charged with an assault-related offence in 2009 had consumed alcohol prior to the offence or were intoxicated at the time of being arrested.

Table 4: Assault-related offences among offenders admitted to ACT Policing watch house 2007–09, by charge type and alcohol involvement
200720082009
nInvolved alcohol (%)nInvolved alcohol (%)nInvolved alcohol (%)
Assault causing grievous bodily harm 7 57 8 38 13 54
Assault causing actual bodily harm 103 63 131 63 186 69
Assault—other 433 57 544 52 500 62
Total assaults 543 58 683 53 699 64

Note: An offence is deemed to have involved alcohol if the individual charged with assault voluntarily admits to having consumed alcohol (in no specific quantity) prior to the offence being committed, or on the basis of a visual assessment made by the ACT watch house supervising officer as to whether the person charged appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of being charged. Offenders may be charged with multiple offences, in which case they may be counted multiple times. Excludes reported assaults where no offender is apprehended or where an offender is summonsed to court at a later date

Source: ACTP watch house data

Some caution is warranted in interpreting these data, given that two different definitions are applied (one that assesses the offender at the time of being arrested, the other which relies on the person admitting they had consumed alcohol at the time of the offence) which are then aggregated. These data also include only those offenders who are apprehended by police and are limited to those offences that are reported to police and for which an offender may be identified. It is likely that these figures underestimate the involvement of alcohol in violent crime because not all offences are reported to, or detected by, police. Nevertheless, these figures suggest that more than half of all assault related offences across the Australian Capital Territory are committed by someone who has consumed or is affected by alcohol.

An analysis of assault offences by time of day lends further support to the relationship between alcohol and violence. Figure 3 shows the distribution of assault offences in Civic, Manuka/Kingston and the Australian Capital Territory as a whole during the 2008–09 financial year, prior to the intervention period, by time of day. This figure demonstrates that the majority of recorded assaults in Civic occurred between the hours of midnight and 3 am (34%) and between 3 am and 6 am (24%). In Kingston/Manuka, the proportion of total assaults peaked at 42 percent between the hours of midnight and 3 am. In the whole of the Australian Capital Territory, around one-third (36%) of assault offences occurred between 9 pm and 3 am, although the proportion of assaults remained relatively consistent between 3 pm and just before 3 am. The pattern of assault in Civic and Kingston/Manuka is consistent with peak periods for the consumption of alcohol and correlates with the opening hours for licensed premises in these locations (Civic has a number of premises open until 5 am).

Figure 3: Recorded assault offences 2008–09, by time category and region (%)

 figure 3

Note: Assault includes aggravated assault, non-aggravated assault and assault police. Excludes other acts intended to cause injury. Civic includes all offences recorded as having occurred in the city. Kingston/Manuka includes all offences recorded as having occurred in Kingston and streets located within the Manuka entertainment precinct (incl. Bougainville St, Canberra Ave, Captain Cook Ct, Flinders Way, Franklin St, Furneaux St and Palmerston Lane)

Source: ACT PROMIS database

Figure 4 describes the location of assault offences in Civic, Kingston/Manuka and whole of the Australian Capital Territory during the 2008–09 financial year. The most common location for assault in Civic and Kingston/Manuka was a public place (66% and 54% of assault offences respectively), which includes streets, footpaths and bicycle paths. The proportion of assaults in residential locations was low in both areas (less than 1% of assault offences in Civic and 9% of assault offences in Kingston/Manuka), compared with 36 percent of assault offences across the whole of the Australian Capital Territory, where public places also accounted for 38 percent of assaults.

Figure 4: Location of recorded assault offences 2008–09, by region (%)

 figure 4

Note: Assault includes aggravated assault, non-aggravated assault and assault police. Excludes other acts intended to cause injury. Civic includes all offences recorded as having occurred in the city. Kingston/Manuka includes all offences recorded as having occurred in Kingston and streets located within the Manuka entertainment precinct (incl. Bougainville St, Canberra Ave, Captain Cook Ct, Flinders Way, Franklin St, Furneaux St and Palmerston Lane)

Source: ACT PROMIS database

Twenty-two percent of assaults in Civic and 24 percent of assaults in Kingston/Manuka were recorded as having taken place on licensed premises, compared with eight percent of assaults in the Australian Capital Territory, which is a reflection of the presence of an entertainment precinct in these two areas. Based on recent research (Fitzgerald, Mason & Borzycki 2010), it is likely that a large proportion of assaults recorded as having occurred in public places within Civic and Kingston/Manuka occurred outside, but within the vicinity of, licensed premises. This was also supported by findings from the AIC’s observational research undertaken as part of this project, in which a number of assaults were observed outside but nearby to licensed premises and involved individuals who were noticeably affected by alcohol.

Alcohol, licensed premises and policing

In May 2009, AIC researchers accompanied ACTP in the Civic entertainment precinct to observe issues relating to the management of licensed premises, problems associated with licensed premises and intoxicated patrons and to monitor existing police strategies in the entertainment precinct. The findings from these observations, as well as the discussions that took place between AIC researchers, ACTP officers and ORS inspectors, provided a useful insight into the issues associated with alcohol in the Civic area and across Canberra more generally. The findings from this research also served to provide a useful baseline against which qualitative assessments and comparisons could be made for the period following the implementation of ACTP strategies.

The research team accompanied one of the ACTP beat teams from 12 pm until 4 am. A large number of patrons were observed who were noticeably affected by alcohol, many showing signs of being heavily intoxicated, particularly as the night went on. This included patrons entering and exiting licensed premises in the surrounding areas. A small number of violent incidents (or the aftermath of these incidents) were observed during the course of the evening outside licensed premises. Officers also assisted a number of patrons who were heavily intoxicated.

The researchers noted considerable variation in the extent and nature of problems associated with different premises, which appeared to depend largely upon the type of premise and nature of clientele. Those premises that attracted large numbers of younger patrons, and those that appeared to encourage and allow the consumption of large quantities of alcohol to the point of intoxication, appeared to be associated with the greatest number of problems—including disorderly conduct, altercations between patrons and intoxicated patrons requiring assistance. Some front-line police identified a number of premises based on their personal experience that, despite having high patronage were associated with a relatively small number of incidents and rarely require police attendance. Conversely, a relatively small (and concentrated) number of premises attract a disproportionate number of problems and require a greater police presence (a finding that is consistent with research in other jurisdictions).

Locations with a high density of premises

The relationship between liquor outlet density and alcohol-related crime has been well established through research undertaken in Australia and overseas (Chikritzhs et al. 2007; Donnelly et al. 2006). The high density of licensed premises in the Civic area is perceived by many stakeholders as an important factor in contributing to the problems associated with alcohol, including violence (ACT DJCS 2008). During observations conducted by AIC researchers as part of this project, it was documented that on one main city block in Civic there are at least eight different licensed premises, excluding restaurants. In a slightly larger area of 300m2 or six city blocks there is an estimated minimum 25 licensed premises, excluding restaurants. Interviews with police and observations by the research team in mid 2009 indicated that this area attracts a disproportionate level of police attention and resources, and that police beat teams spend a considerable amount of time patrolling this small area and responding to incidents as they occur.

Changes to liquor licensing legislation

A report by the ACT Auditor-General (2007) highlighted a number of deficiencies in the regulation of liquor licenses in the Australian Capital Territory and increasing community concern regarding the problems associated with alcohol. In response to this, a review of the Liquor Act 1975 (ACT) and associated regulatory mechanisms was undertaken by the Department of Justice and Community Safety. Extensive community consultation resulted in the development of a new liquor act (the Liquor Bill 2010). The stated objective of the new legislation is to

…adequately regulate the sale, supply, promotion and consumption of liquor so as to minimise the harm associated with the consumption of liquor and in a way that takes into account community safety (ACT Liquor Bill 2010: 7).

This will align the ACT legislation with other jurisdictions and relevant national strategies, including the National Alcohol Strategy 2006–11, which focuses on reducing intoxication and alcohol-related harms (MCDS 2006).

The introduction of the new Liquor Act 2010 aims to:

  • strengthen the licensing regime so as to better reflect harm minimisation and community safety principles;
  • enable more effective enforcement of ACT liquor licensing legislation to encourage greater compliance; and
  • streamline the licensing regime to promote more effective and more efficient regulatory action (ACT DJCS 2010: 2).

There are several major reforms being introduced as part of the new legislation. Among these are the introduction of a risk-based licensing regime, the consideration of community safety criteria for assessing new or existing licenses, new powers to impose or vary conditions on licenses and the requirement for licensees to prepare a risk-assessment management plan as part of their application (ACT DJCS 2009). There is also a range of mechanisms being introduced to increase compliance, including the ability to suspend licenses, mandatory responsible service of alcohol training, new criminal offences and increased penalties for breaches and a more clearly defined role for ACTP and the ORS in enforcement (ACT DJCS 2009).

These reforms are significant and are likely to have an impact upon the supply of alcohol and management of licensed premises across Canberra. These changes are currently scheduled to take effect in late 2010 and therefore warrant consideration as part of the policing (and ACT Government’s) approach to addressing problems associated with alcohol in the 2010–11 summer period. Where possible, these changes have been considered as part of this report, including as part of the development of recommendations to improve the operation and effectiveness of ACTP in reducing alcohol-related crime.

Proposed changes to ACT Policing

The new legislation will be supported by funding from the ACT Government for ACTP to work with officers from ORS to enforce the new liquor reforms. This includes the development of a dedicated team of officers tasked with the responsibility of monitoring, regulation and enforcement of liquor licensing legislation in the Australian Capital Territory. This is an important development, particularly given that current research has identified a number of benefits associated with dedicated liquor licensing teams and a trend nationally to adopt this more collaborative model (Fleming 2008).