Economics and finance, Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

15 July 2020

George Floyd’s death may be the tipping point for many jurisdictions to take aggressive action against racism in police departments in the United States. It has also meant calls for change to social services and policing in the rest of the world, Vernon White writes.

As the world watches the spiraling impact in the United States of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it has seen a monumental public show of outrage against racism, particularly in relation to policing.

The public outcry that has reverberated around the United States in recent months is a chance for many governments and police systems to try to correct procedures and practices that continue to see over-representation of specific groups in the criminal justice system, but what does it all mean for Australia?

In Australia, and many other countries that were settled by Europeans, the very people that welcomed the settlers centuries ago, Indigenous people, are the most likely to be incarcerated. In a report from the Australian Human Rights Law Centre in 2017, it was identified that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while making up about two per cent of the Australian population, make up around 27 per cent of the adult prison population.

Even mortality rates see Indigenous Australians dying a full 10 years earlier than their non-Indigenous counterparts, and they are far less likely to graduate from year 12 schooling. Clearly, something must be done to improve the lives of Indigenous people in light of these statistics.

Although many solutions have been floated, in the United States, and to a lesser degree in countries like Canada and Australia, it is the concept of defunding the police that has soared to popularity.

More on this: Australia’s law enforcement wins a battle but is losing the war

There are few who would argue that the funding required for police agencies and criminal justice systems should continue to grow while funding for the social programs needed in society does not.

However, the suggestion that by removing funding from one group, police – that provides safety and security to society – would provide funding for another group, social services, that can do much of the same, is short-sighted.

This thinking is unhelpful in the grand scheme of things. Few police would disagree that there needs to be more funding for social service programs. In fact, most police officers would argue that their workload has grown over the decades, in part because there are not enough social service providers – and those that Australia has are under-resourced – to provide the services they need and would agree strongly with calls to fund these programs.

Mental health needs in the Australian community have exploded since the deinstitutionalisation of mental health care in the early 90s, and with limited community resources it means the police often pick up the slack in this area. This can, and should, be remedied without limiting the resources of police.

Ultimately, Australians can call on their government to provide greater levels of social service funding without presenting it as a choice between money for police, defence, or anything else for that matter, and these programs.

The truth is, a great deal of police funding goes to meeting social needs that would not even be the responsibility of the police if the social service agencies providing mental health and addictions had adequate resources themselves.

More on this: Podcast: A sense of social insecurity

Too many Australians in the criminal justice system are battling addiction, mental illness, or both, and it is clear that more services are needed to tackle these issues directly. A person suffering addiction might be compelled by their need for a substance that they commit multiple criminal offences every day to satisfy it, and yet in Australia drug addiction treatment can take months for ordinary people to access.

Implementing services to deal with addiction and mental illness would certainly impact the demand for police resources and resulting issues high police activity can have on the community. But the suggestion that the government can only afford to fund one or the other will not solve the problems with Australia’s criminal justice system, nor the problems it will surely face in the future.

Clearly, there needs to be change. There are many organisations and resources designed specifically to tackle many of the community problems that Australian police are currently being incorrectly employed to deal with. But it has not been the choice of the police to take on these responsibilities, rather they were asked to take on these tasks by governments that simply must reconsider their policies.

Instead of playing off two valuable resources against each other, in social services and policing, Australians should call on their governments to commit to a full needs analysis, and reconsider how they fund the community services the country desperately needs.

Ultimately, cuts and the failure to provide funds for social service and health providers have resulted in police becoming the default response to societal problems for which they are unprepared. Only a full revamp of Australia’s social services system could achieve a fix for this tricky issue, not a simple three-word slogan.

This will demand that governments do the research such a complex problem needs, and provide a level of funding for dealing with social issues like addictions and mental health. If this happens, those most often impacted by poor police behaviour will be thankful, and so will the agencies that are keeping all Australians safer, including the police.

If, in the end, increased social service funding results in a change of demand for police resources, as one might expect, then policymakers should have the discussion about what police funding should look like.

But without looking first to the funding of social services, defunding the police is simply not a solution to the deep-seated problems with community health and wellbeing that have caused many of law enforcement’s problems, and certainly will not result immediately in safer communities.

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