On 5 and 6 August 2008, staff from the New South Wales Police Force (NSWPF) and Victoria Police attended a workshop in Mildura, Victoria to discuss the policing of substance abuse in Indigenous communities. The workshop was funded by these police organisations and the National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund (NDLERF). It was conducted in accordance with a good practice framework developed through NDLERF research.
The workshop provided an opportunity to disseminate findings from NDLERF research to an audience of people involved in implementing and managing the policing response to substance abuse in Indigenous communities. These personnel were able to share experiences, build understanding of the issues and contribute to discussion around development of responses.
Staff from the NSWPF and Victoria Police presented environmental scans from their respective jurisdictions. The NSWPF presentation highlighted some differences in substance abuse between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. While cannabis is the most commonly used illicit substance for both populations, it makes up a higher proportion of detections for Indigenous offenders. Although there appears to be a slight increase in cannabis use among Indigenous people, at the same time there is a declining rate of use in the general community. The Victoria Police presentation noted that, while alcohol continues to be the major substance abuse problem, illicit substances are of increasing concern. Police make widespread use of diversion to health service providers and Victoria is moving to greater recognition of diversion initiatives arising from the Aboriginal community.
A range of case studies highlighted both diversity and areas of similarity in policing responses to substance misuse in Indigenous communities. The workshop heard case study presentations from New South Wales and Victorian police working in both rural and urban locations. The presentations showed that the particular circumstances and issues police need to address vary between locations. These include the challenges of operating in cross-border situations, particularly along major transportation routes that can be utilised to convey drugs across states. Problems of substance misuse are often linked with other antisocial behaviour problems, such as family violence.
The need to work collaboratively with other agencies—such as health, education and housing—was a feature of most of the case study presentations. Very positive results have been achieved when agencies have worked together, with each bringing its own area of expertise to help resolve the range of problems that affect some Indigenous communities. Throughout the presentations, there was a theme of working with local Indigenous organisations and community representatives and the importance of engaging with and maintaining good relationships with these groups. The vital role of liaison officers, particularly Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers (ACLOs), was also highlighted. As well as working with the offending population and at-risk youth, the case studies showed the gains that can be made by offering positive incentives to young people who have not come to police attention to build on the pro-social developments they have already made.
During the workshop, participants divided into groups to discuss responses to hypothetical scenarios and to develop further scenarios based on their own experiences. Group responses showed the importance of maintaining core policing responses, such as the use of intelligence and seizures, to control substance use problems while building effective relationships with Indigenous communities to achieve sustainable changes.
Participants at the workshop were surveyed to examine their perceptions of the current status of policing responses to substance abuse in rural and remote communities. While the participants were only a small and not representative sample, the results provided some interesting insights. Similar to the results seen in a previous workshop, participants identified recruitment, education and training as areas for improvement.
Throughout the workshop, the importance of enthusiastic and motivated individuals in developing and driving interventions was highlighted. A challenge for police is to effectively employ these individuals while also establishing sustainable arrangements and processes that do not rely on individuals for their ongoing success. Working with multi-agency committees is one way of building these arrangements, but there is a need to ensure that interagency approaches achieve effective collaborative outcomes that are not impeded by committee structures and discussion.
While workshop participants emphasised the importance of working with the local Indigenous community, there is a need to balance resources available for services and interventions between the specific needs of the Indigenous community and the needs of the general community. Particularly in small towns and where limited resources are available, maintaining the effectiveness of crime reduction and prevention can rely on ensuring that resourcing issues do not lead to conflicts between different sectors of the community.
The inclusion of participants from rural and urban environments provided a stimulating mix of perspectives to the workshop and made apparent the need for further research on policing responses to illicit drug use in urban Indigenous communities; an area not covered by previous NDLERF research.