You could be forgiven for thinking that the Victorian state government’s March 29 announcement to arm its police with semi-automatic, military-grade weapons was an early April Fool’s joke.
After all, the announcement came in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting in the United States. It also came after the Crime Statistics Agency published data on March 15 showing that crime rates have fallen by 9.9%.
What could be the reasoning behind such an ostensibly absurd policy? The upcoming state election, scheduled for late November, where a bidding war between the major parties on “law and order” is on track to be front and centre of their campaign.
The Coalition Opposition, led by Matthew Guy, is campaigning on a “tough on crime” platform. He has plans to put police in schools, shopping centres and everywhere else under the sun.
Not to be outdone, Labor Premier Daniel Andrews has also been talking up his party’s “hard-line” stance, including watering down the presumption of innocence through last year’s bail reforms as well as finding new ways to put more youth in prison.
In addition, the government has been boasting about the police’s new arsenal. The Operations Response Unit (ORU) seems to be the only group within the force allowed to use them. But the unit is frequently deployed to protests such as the one against British alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos on December 5.
The ORU will have at its disposal the 175-shot pepper ball semi-automatic rifle, which fires marble-sized pellets to “brand” suspected offenders for later arrest; a launcher with a 50-metre range and the impact of a “very hard punch”; as well as grenades that can release rubber pellets. The ORU received an initial $7.6 million with an additional $35 million over five years to “improve the management of large scale or high-risk public order incidents”.
More concerning, however, is that this is just a fragment of a wider trend to militarise the police in Victoria. Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton has tried to justify this as being “increasingly necessary” to deal with incidents such as “violent protests [and] prison riots”.
Victoria Police is talking up its new weaponry as “enhancing the safety” of the community. But this could not be further from the truth. Giving the police military-style weapons only increases the risk of serious injury to civilians.
As Melbourne Activist Legal Support points out: “They will be used against teenagers at parties, against frustrated prisoners and against citizens standing up against injustices that the government ignores.”
Such measures are intended to invoke fear — a rational reaction given the police’s often violent approach to peaceful protesters. Victorian police officers’ attack on a mentally ill disability pensioner in October last year, the film of which went viral after it was released on April 2, is another reason why police should not be trusted to community care and why mental health crisis interventions cannot be left to the police.
Victoria Police have a record of protecting neo-Nazis at demonstrations and stopping people from exercising their right to free speech and peaceful protest.
Police also enforce the status quo. Through its increasingly exclusive monopoly on violence, the police continue to strengthen capitalism’s injustices on behalf of the state.
There has been very little progressive law reform in Victoria over the past few years. The government has targeted at-risk youth offenders through expanding the network of protective service officers at railway stations.
Meanwhile, the state ignores the root cause of petty crime. The average offender in a Victorian prison tends to be someone in their 20s who has not finished school and who has experienced domestic violence or alcoholism in the family as a child. If you are a vulnerable person, hail from a poor suburb, or are of Aboriginal, African or Pacific Islander ethnicity, the course of your life is often predetermined.
The rate of young offenders being expelled from school, the postcode distribution of offenders and the high (43.6%) recidivist rate all reveal the systemic inequality within the so-called justice system. The corporate media’s racist fear mongering just exacerbates the problem.
Changes are necessary, but militarising the police to deal with institutionalised inequity is not the solution. Engagement with troubled youth, increasing public services and addressing housing and employment insecurity must be prioritised.
[Leo Crnogorcevic is a Year 11 student and a member of Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance.]