Police, firearms and public 'security'

February 2, 2007

In her 2001 book, Blue Army: Paramilitary Policing in Victoria, senior lecturer in criminology at Monash University Associate Professor Jude McCulloch reports 44 victims of police shootings in Victoria since the 1980s, mostly poor people from non-Anglo backgrounds, but also police themselves. That number is now more than 50.

In the 1980s, the Victorian government departed from a century-long practice of unarmed police and armed the state police force. McCulloch explained: "Police officers and police organisations in Australia are very attached to the idea that police need firearms for self-defence, taking what is an American line on firearms that everyone is safer if everyone has firearms, or at least if they [the police] have firearms."

However, between 1988-97, following the re-arming of Victorian police, 28 people were fatally shot by police in that state, equal to the total number of Victoria police casualties in the previous 150 years. In the same period, eight civilians were killed by police in NSW, three were killed in South Australia, two each in WA and Tasmania, and one in Queensland.

Commenting on why Victoria incurred more casualties than other states, McCulloch said that the "very disproportionate number of fatalities at the hands of Victoria police" was despite other states' police being armed in the same way and despite the fact that "there was not any disproportionate number of violent crimes being committed in Victoria" in that period.

"My reading is that the critical factor was the role of [Victoria's] Special Operations Group (SOG), which is an elite paramilitary group originally set up as a counter-terrorist group and based very closely on the Special Air Services, a commando group within the army", she said.

"The SOG trained with the military, used military equipment and military-like firearms, [which are] far more lethal than the firearms used by regular police. Members of the SOG, or former members who had trained with and been steeped in that paramilitary philosophy of the SOG, were put in charge of the police firearms unit from the late 1980s. From there you see a very sharp escalation in the number of fatalities in Victoria."

McCulloch added: "Police, when they use their firearms, are subject to the law like other citizens, and they are only to use them in self-defence or in defence of others in life-threatening situations. The 1994 [state] regulation, where police were only to carry firearms when it was thought they might need to use them or be in contact with people who might have firearms, was interpreted very broadly to mean that all operational police should carry firearms. In fact, the proportion of operation police carrying firearms increased after that [policy amendment] because the police took the view that any police officer on operational duties, no matter how routine, could unexpectedly come across someone with a firearm."

McCulloch also questions the legality of some new policing methods, like pressure holds and baton charges. "The pressure-point tactics, baton charges and more generally paramilitary tactics reduce the room for discretion and impose the military type of discipline amongst police", she said. "I think this is always treading the line between legality and illegality, and is often at least in a legal grey area."

Commenting on the constant media coverage of "security" and terrorism since 9/11 and the 2002 Bali bombings, McCulloch said: "There is no doubt that there has been an introduction of many repressive laws that in normal times would be rejected as too draconian. It is very much a false equation that more repressive measures, more visible signs of military or quasi-military coercive force, will increase security."

She concluded: "I don't think there is a trade-off between the security we have as a community and civil liberties. There is a real danger of a policing of politics and dissent, rather than violent political actions. The security is not actually about individual security, human security; it is about security of the state and a particular political and economic order."

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