Does WA need the hundreds of new police officers it’s set to recruit over the next four years?
In the midst of an election campaign largely focused on the premier’s popularity and the pandemic, it’s not unexpected many voters have overlooked the old law-and-order chestnut dusted off by both parties.
If the state government is re-elected, as is widely expected, up to 800 additional cops will be recruited by 2025 at a cost of $314 million to taxpayers.
These officers will be equipped with body cameras, number plate recognition technology and protective vests, courtesy of hundreds of millions of dollars plunged into the police force’s budget over the past four years.
About $2 million in television and digital advertising is promoting the versatility of the jobs on offer; one spot shows how officers will be able to use drone technology to apprehend suspects, while others feature police dog training, officers comforting victims of crime, and a skatepark patrol.
The hiring drive, ostensibly launched as a result of consultation with police commissioner Chris Dawson, will no doubt burnish the state government’s credentials on job creation.
With more than 9,000 staff, WA Police Force is the fourth largest employer in the public sector, according to Data & Insights, while its receipt of $1.4 billion from the state government in the 2019 financial year was second only to the Department of Health for all public departments.
That’s without considering the number of new construction jobs resulting from upgrades to police stations across WA, with Forrestfield and Baldivis in metropolitan Perth set to receive $22 million in capital works apiece, and two police stations in Collie to share in $3 million of renovations following the opening of an $8 million facility in nearby Capel this past year.
Michelle Roberts, who has served as the state’s police minister for the past four years, told Business News the community should be pleased with the state government’s record on policing since 2017.
She also highlighted $755 million added to the police force’s budget since Labor was elected in 2017 and touted the state government’s crackdown on methamphetamine possession and importation as proof of the government’s commitment to policing.
“This comes from policing that is good, policing that is smart and policing that is well resourced,” Mrs Roberts said.
“None of this is cheap, but WA Labor governments have a strong record of ensuring our hardworking frontline police officers are protected and supported with the resources they need to keep the community safe.”
Not to be outflanked on the politics of crime, the Liberal Party has promised $500 million in police funding over the forward estimates to help employ 1,200 additional officers.
That policy was announced in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Rebels motorcycle club president Nick Martin at Kwinana Motorplex in December, with shadow police spokesperson Peter Katsambanis claiming underfunding was leading to an uptick in gang warfare.
Elsewhere, the party has pledged a host of tough-on-crime policies if elected, including mandatory minimum sentences for possession of methamphetamine, squads covering sexual, elder and child abuse, as well as units covering small business theft and broader financial fraud and scams.
In January, Mr Katsambanis spoke to Business News about his stance on crime and insisted there was nuance to his and the opposition’s approach.
He lamented WA’s incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which at 3,842 persons per 100,000 is the highest rate in the country, as a “disgrace” and an indictment of the system in its current form.
From his position as chair of the community development and justice committee, he notes structural issues in how departments – particularly housing, health and police – operate independently of each other to the detriment of those being funnelled through the criminal justice system.
Mr Katsambanis was unapologetic about the party’s tough stances, however, which he said stemmed from his belief that the community deserved to feel safer than it did at present.
“We want lower crime,” he said.
“We want to deter criminals from committing crime … but also, what is increasingly obvious is, to get a safer society, we have to start right at the start and find ways to have less people getting involved in the criminal justice system … with low-level offending, perhaps at young ages.
“That’s the big challenge that I think is untapped both across Australia but particularly here in WA.”
Mrs Roberts disputes the Liberals’ views, labelling the opposition’s claims of rising crime in WA as fearmongering.
Statistically, though, crime does appear to have increased somewhat in recent years.
Generally, offenses peaked in the middle of the 2010s before declining every year thereafter to 260,000 offenses in 2019, according to WA Police Force data.
That’s been largely thanks to a decline in property crimes across the entire state.
Assaults, rape and robberies have increased, from a low of about 22,000 offenses recorded at the start of the decade to 32,000 as of 2019.
And while incidents homicides are low, WA’s murder rate per 100,000 people is in fact greater than more populous NSW and Victoria.
Latest ABS data presents a similar picture, wherein Western Australians are subject to higher rates of physical assault, break-ins, vehicle theft and property damage than the rest of the country.
But while crime appears to be more prevalent in WA, these slight upticks in incidents are still low by historical standards.
“What the data shows in a lot of Western countries where there are good statistics [is that] crime has been steadily declining year on year,” Joe Clare, criminologist and lecturer at the University of Western Australia, said.
“It kicked off in the US in about 1990, and we’re talking about property-related crimes such as vehicle theft and burglaries, but also violent crimes.
“It’s dropped in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Germany and Holland; all these places are seeing similar things that have happened at similar times.
“If you’re looking at places where they’re talking about increases in crime, I think we’ve hit a floor to a certain extent.
“We’re never going to get zero crime, but crime dropped a lot, and now they might be seeing slight upticks in some areas that might be a real thing or it could be a noise.”
Mrs Roberts echoed those comments, attributing statistical increases to better reporting and policing of family and domestic violence that had occurred throughout other states, territories and countries.
Still, the state government’s own commitments mean the police force will add 200 additional officers by June if re-elected, begging the question of why these personnel are needed if crime is, in fact, low.
According to Mrs Roberts, the police commissioner had indicated that 98 officers would be allocated to stations in regional WA over the next three months, with the remaining 102 to be employed in metropolitan Perth.
While she did not give a breakdown of what roles these officers would be employed for, she said they would include a mix of duties including intelligence and youth policing.
Beyond that, allocations would be at the behest of the commissioner, Mr Dawson, with the remit to deploy investigative, detective and other specialist officers where needed.
That these duties are largely the responsibility of the police commissioner, rather than the minister, makes the political role of policing somewhat moot.
Policing has often been used for political purposes in Australia, with former NSW premier Bob Carr cruising to victory in 2003 on the back of his tough-on-crime approach in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Conversely, Victorian Premier Dan Andrew romped to victory in 2018 against an opposition that vowed to get in control of crime through stricter bail conditions, mandatory minimum sentencing and the use of electronic-monitoring devices for suspects.
Professor Clare said that policing was often more complex than public debate could make it seem, with police intervention more broadly requiring thoughtfulness beyond hiring more officers or implementing harsher punishments for offenders.
“It’s always a cause and effect,” he said.
“It’s very tempting to think we can just do quick fixes for some of these things, like more police or tougher sentences, but [it is important to] try to understand how that connects to fixing the problem that you have.”