BY ANNA FREELAND
The Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) has publicly condemned the disproportionate targeting of Indigenous and young Australians by a NSW Police program.
Described as a pre-emptive policing initiative, The Suspect Target Management Plan (STMP) came under fire last month after a report by the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) revealed that the program had been administered on children as young as 10.
The Vice President of ALHR Kerry Weste said the findings were deeply concerning, and commended YJC for, “Shining a light on this human rights issue.”
“The program raises serious issues relating to civil liberties, police accountability and the appropriateness of a program that is not evidence-based,” Ms. Weste said.
In line with the report’s recommendations, the ALHR is advocating for changes to prevent the targeting of children, low-risk offenders and those who have committed minor offences like graffiti and shoplifting.
“Nobody under the age of 18 should be placed on that program,” Ms. Weste said.
“It seems that the STMP is focused on crime prevention through over policing and isn’t taking into consideration what the best interests of a particular child are. We consider that to be in breach of Australia’s obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the NSW Police said the STMP framework is used to target recidivist criminal offenders.
“A thorough risk management framework is used to ensure the NSW Police Force is targeting the right people at the right times to reduce violence and crime in the community,” the spokesperson said.
While operating since 2000, details about the STMP and its outcomes have largely been kept outside of public purview. As recommended by the YJC report, the ALHR is calling for greater transparency by NSW Police in the operational arrangements of the program.
“There’s no oversight, no guidance and the public don’t know why, let alone whether it’s achieving its stated objective,” said Dr. Vicki Sentas, a lawyer and academic from the University of New South Wales.
Dr. Sentas, who co-authored the YJC report, says the failure of NSW Police to disclose information about the STMP is part of a broader trend towards secrecy around policing.
“We believe it is in the public interest to know what the object of the policy is, to know what the risk categories are and the assumptions underlying those risk categories,” she said.
“It’s one thing for NSW Police to say the STMP is appropriate because it targets criminals and reduces crime but there are a number of assumptions within that, that need to be interrogated.”
While the program aims to deter recidivism, Dr. Sentas says there is no publicly available evidence to suggest that the program has been effective as a crime prevention measure.
“Even if hypothetically the STMP was found to correlate with a reduction in offending of those on the STMP as compared with those who aren’t, what we think is the more important question is, is it fair and is it appropriate,” she said.
According to the YJC report, administration of the STMP has also led to unlawful police conduct. “We think that’s seriously concerning,” said Ms. Weste.
“We’re also very concerned by the disproportionate use of the program against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and against young people.”
The report found that 23.5 per cent of STMP targets were under 18, while 44 per cent were from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Ms. Weste says the program is at odds with the Young Offenders Act NSW.
“One of the main objects of the Act is to address the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through diversion from the Criminal Justice System,” she said.
“We know that time in detention is the greatest indicator of recidivism, so the best thing that you can do is divert young people away from the criminal justice system with evidence-based programs that focus on their needs and the social reasons often associated with their offending behaviour,” Ms. Weste said.
Dr. Sentas agrees and says that over-policing has additional social ramifications for Indigenous Australians.
“Increased monitoring and surveillance of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander communities is incredibly disruptive to everyday life. There’s a sense of social exclusion, a sense that you don’t belong to Australian society, that you’re singled out for attention.”
During a Senate Estimates hearing last Thursday, Police Commissioner Mick Fuller was grilled about the STMP by Greens MP David Shoebridge.
Commissioner Fuller disclosed in the hearing that out of 1800 people subject to the program, over 55 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. This figure is significantly higher than the 44 per cent quoted in the YJC report, which was limited to data provided by the NSW Police for 10 Local Area Commands.
Asked whether NSW Police would review the program, the spokesperson declined to respond.
While it remains unclear whether the recommendations put forward by YJC will be implemented, a spokesperson for the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), the NSW Police watchdog, indicated that they will be undertaking an investigation into the program.
“For the present, the LECC is examining the research that underlies STMP and the policies concerning its use in particular cases,” the spokesperson said.
“A project plan is being developed to undertake the enquiry and will consult with the NSW Police Force and community groups to refine its scope.”
Ms. Weste said the ALHR fully supports an investigation by the LECC.