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Themes and issues

The case study presentations and group discussions at the workshop, particularly those in the context of the hypothetical scenarios, showed that any approach to illicit drug problems in Indigenous communities needs to recognise that the primary responsibility of police is to uphold their sworn duties under the law. The policing response needs to stop or reduce illegal and antisocial behaviour, reduce supply and take enforcement action against offenders. While the nature of responses needs to take into account the situations and community circumstances which occur, responding to illicit drug use will continue to involve core policing activities such as intelligence gathering, patrols, raids and arrests.

Police recognise that these first-line responses need to be exercised in conjunction with the development of interventions to maintain reductions in the level of crime and prevent further offending. Workshop participants strongly emphasised the importance of collaborative and cooperative approaches, working with other agencies at various levels of government, local councils and community representatives. At the same time, participants recognised that working in this way brought its own challenges. Some of these are discussed below.

A key theme of the workshop was the importance of maintaining good relations between police and the Aboriginal community. Regular and ongoing meetings and consultative groups were the main mechanism used throughout the case studies presented. Police also emphasised the importance of engaging in positive interactions with the community and especially young people in the community. Participation in sport was commonly presented as a way of achieving this engagement and also involving young people in prosocial, healthy activities. Many participants emphasised the key roles played by liaison officers, such as ACLOs, Aboriginal Police Liaison Officers (APLOs), CLOs and YLOs and examples were given of cases where these key people were seen as doing a crucial and effective job.

Participants emphasised the importance of the ACLO role, but also acknowledged that it can lack wider recognition and therefore result in ACLOs not being utilised as frequently as they could be. This can result from general-duty police not knowing enough about the role of ACLOs or how to most appropriately utilise their knowledge, relationships and the unique position they hold. The lack of proper police training and career path is a problem for ensuring that this knowledge, and the relationships ACLOs form, are preserved. This is an issue that needs to be addressed at a corporate level.

One area not discussed in depth, and which could be explored further, is the way in which liaison officers (especially ACLOs) balance their roles as both members of the Aboriginal community and members of the police service and how they manage conflicts that might arise from this duality. There was also some discussion about the important roles played by Aboriginal elders and families and this could also be explored further.

In addition to the specific roles played by liaison officers and others in the community, participants highlighted the way in which certain critical individuals contributed to much of the success seen in intervention programs. It was apparent that in order for a program to succeed, it must be led by enthusiastic and motivated people who are able to expend the energy and develop the relationships to drive the program. Where these people are involved, programs can readily achieve impressive outcomes. A key challenge for police services is setting up stable arrangements and processes that will allow programs and interventions to continue without reliance on particular individuals.

Workshop participants stressed that it is important to identify and understand drug abuse issues in the local community and the level of community support for drug law enforcement. This was linked to operational actions such as raids on houses and the need for police to have some sense of how the local community people might react to the raid. In relation to diversion and referrals, stress was placed on what services are available, whether protocols are in place (at state or regional level) and the need to build personal relationships and linkages with both drug-specific and Indigenous specific service providers. While a range of diversion programs were presented and discussed, and the target groups and processes varied, there was agreement that the focus of diversion should be on young people and on fostering community engagement among these young people.

A number of case studies presented at the workshop were from police working in cross border areas and a range of issues were identified as arising from the movement of offenders across borders and the need to work with the criminal justice system and other services in other jurisdictions. While there was some discussion of the measures police have enacted to resolve some of these issues, there was not discussion of how well police responses were connected with other services in adjoining jurisdictions or whether these services connected with each other.

One issue that arose from the region in which many of the participants were based was the impact of transportation routes that ran through these areas. While providing important regional transit points for legitimate transportation, these routes appear to have a direct role in allowing the transit of illicit drugs into and through the regional centres. This is a problem that appears to be increasing, especially in relation to high quality hydroponically-grown cannabis containing large amounts of THC. It appears that at least some of the transportation of illicit drugs is controlled by Indigenous people.

While there was evidence at the workshop of illicit drugs being an increasing problem among Indigenous communities in New South Wales and Victoria, illicit drugs still have a fairly low level of visibility in crime and antisocial behaviour problems. Alcohol related crime remains the major direct or indirect contributor to the problem behaviours confronting police. Illicit drugs are more of an issue among urban Indigenous people, with use in some areas increasing at the same time that it is decreasing in the general community.

Throughout the workshop, a number of other issues of interest emerged through presentations and group discussions. One issue that arose in a number of areas was balancing resources available for services and interventions between the specific needs of the Indigenous community and the needs of the general community. With only limited resources available, focusing these on the Indigenous community may mean that others in the local community fail to receive the services and interventions they need. This can undermine the effectiveness of crime reduction and prevention efforts and potentially cause problems and lead to resentment in the broader community. The extent to which this is an issue will vary between communities, depending on the availability of resources, the size of the Indigenous community, the extent of offending and relationships between the police, the Indigenous community and other parts of the community.

Management of collaborative interagency relationships was a major theme of the workshop. While presenters and participants emphasised the necessity and benefits of interagency approaches, they also noted areas of difficulty. A critical aspect of managing an interagency approach has been resolving issues around funding, particularly competition for limited funds. With each agency trying to secure their piece of funding, those most in need of the funds, particularly children, can be left out of the equation and fail to receive the services they need.

While many participants suggested committees as an integral component of strategic responses, both in the case studies and in hypotheticals, it was also clear that a good deal of time and resources could be used up in organising and participating in committees, without progress necessarily being made. Committee structures were sometimes seen as blocking police responses, as police would develop plans and be prepared to go ahead, while other committee members failed to reach agreement. The failure of some agencies to engage with others or contribute to attempts at achieving cooperative and collaborative responses could create a great deal of tension.

In one case where an interagency approach was attempted, police encountered a number of barriers from other agencies that stifled attempts to achieve a collaborative response. In this case, police felt that other agencies lacked appreciation of the extent of issues confronting the community. At the same time, they had sufficient appreciation of the problems to cite occupational health and safety grounds for not attending the community or providing services directly to it. Other agencies also became unclear as to what they could do or how their services could be applied to addressing the broad range of problems in the community. Police eventually advised these agencies to simply continue doing their core business and delivering core services, but concentrating these on the affected community.

Some police expressed concerns about the advice given by some legal representatives to Aboriginal clients, whom they advise not to speak to police. As entry to most diversion programs is subject to the offender making admissions, this leaves police with no option to charge offenders and contributes to the numbers of Aboriginal people in custody.

As indicated by the surveys completed by participants, education and training is a major issue for police services in equipping members to work with Indigenous communities. There is a strong need for localised cultural awareness training that recognises local problems and issues, including understanding relationships within and between local families and how these might create risk or resilience factors. Generic corporate models for cultural awareness training do not reflect the diversity of Indigenous communities or provide the local specialisation identified by participants as a critical element of training.

Last updated
3 November 2017