Secretary's message: Policing at demos and music festivals – more regulation is required

In a single picture, this edition’s cover tells a thousand words about the sad state of affairs that characterises the modern-day public order role for police in Victoria.  Melbourne is no stranger to demonstrations or protests, but in the past the majority of these have been single-issue protests or expressions from lobbyists or groups intent on making a point or seeking change.  Historically, they have been loud, but mostly peaceful.

While protest activity can be seen as labour intensive from a policing and security perspective, and disruptive more generally, it can also be evidence of a strong democracy.  We are tolerant of divergent views as a society because of that. 

Unfortunately, it is with increasing and almost monotonous regularity that our members are being called upon to take post at more combative protests between warring ideological groups, which see violence and provocative conduct as a legitimate vehicle for championing their beliefs.  

These protests, like the one we saw in St Kilda in January, pitch police between waring groups, often of the extreme left or right.

They are unnecessary, dangerous and serve to achieve no legitimate change or outcome.   Let’s be clear here – we are not talking about industrial disputes, pickets or legitimate and lawful assemblies, these events are largely staged to provoke the other side, or to drown them out. 

For police, these demonstrations pose a risk to our safety, due to the violent undertow that they carry, and they distract hundreds of police that should be in our community dealing with crime and community safety.  Most require between 300 to 500 police largely taken in no small part from suburban police stations. 

The strain on resourcing and on our members is significant, with barely enough police at a local level to get day to day jobs done - requests of this nature take their toll.

When we see activity like this on such a regular basis, it calls into question whether the time has arrived for protest activity to be better regulated.  We must assess whether these protests should require approval by police or local government and whether they be subject to conditions that ensure community safety is paramount and that the unnecessary costs associated with protest activity – which are involuntarily sacrificed by Victoria Police and the community - are met by those responsible for their organisation.  

Legislation like this operates in NSW and provides police with the opportunity to set parameters for lawful protests and the provision of powers and penalties for those who refuse to operate within them. 

This is not an erosion of democratic rights, quite the opposite. It simply seeks to ensure that everyone’s right to protest and make their point is respected and protected, while restricting the ability of fanatical elements within these groups to unnecessarily disrupt the lives of ordinary Victorians and put them, and our members, at risk. 

Last month we also heard, and participated in debate about pill testing, following the suspected overdose of young people at music festivals. Many within the community argue that pill testing is the panacea to drug overdoses at these festivals.

We are yet to be convinced that this idea serves to do much more than provide tacit approval and encouragement for young people to use or experiment with drugs with greater frequency and in higher numbers than they currently are. 

We have publicly expressed our concern that advocates of pill testing have rushed to the conclusion that this is the only solution that will minimize harm and prevent unnecessary drug overdose. They argue that nothing else has worked or will work. That is untrue. 

Education, prevention and enforcement does work and does impact drug availability and use. It is a harm minimization approach too and there is far more that can be done in all these areas to make festivals safer. 

The responsibility for creating safe public spaces is not one solely for police. It’s one that should be borne by event organisers too.  Let’s not forget that these festivals are not philanthropic events, they make millions of dollars for commercial organisers. They attract thousands of people and the responsibility should ultimately be theirs to ensure that the culture of the event is one that is safe and actively deters drug trafficking and use. 

At a recent festival in Victoria, police were pelted with missiles and later a paramedic was punched senseless by a drug affected patient that she was treating. Significant numbers of drivers tested leaving the event were detected as drug impaired. The victims and potential victims of drug use are not just those popping pills – it’s everyone they interact with, including on our roads, where drug driving has taken over drink driving as the predominant scourge on our roads.  

There is insufficient regulation of this part of the entertainment `industry’ at present.  It is in stark contrast to the accountability imposed on hotels and licensed premises for the actions and safety of their patrons.

It is high time that music festivals were subjected to the same stringent guidelines.

 

PSOs on trams and trains

Our PSO members have again shown their capacity to assist policing in Victoria during the Australian Open, working on public transport, in particular on the tram network. This extension of the PSO role follows their recent deployment on train carriages, a move heavily advocated for by TPAV on behalf of our members. 

The feedback from within the community has been overwhelmingly positive, endorsing the important work that our members do to protect the public transport system each and every day.  From humble beginnings, PSOs have evolved into a flexible and professional policing presence that have increased the public’s perception of safety on Victorian public transport. 

In January, as the community reeled from horrific news that 21-year-old Aiia Maasarwe was murdered following a late-night trip on a suburban tram, we heard calls from the community for more PSOs on more trams.  It is hardly surprising, given that police and PSOs visible to the community have, for many years, enhanced safety in a way that passive measures like CCTV or lighting, simply cannot.

While the community would no doubt welcome it, we will probably never be able to have a police officer or PSO on each corner. What we can do is focus on ensuring that our police are resourced to patrol our streets and that more PSOs are deployed on our trams and trains in a flexible and intelligence-led way.  Flexibility is one of the many benefits of having a skilled workforce like ours, and in the case of PSOs, increasing the scope of their duties beyond the white line of a train platform is a proactive and sensible way to add an extra layer of reassurance to public transport users.    

This flexibility should remain front of mind when the Government and Victoria Police, in partnership with TPAV, look to increase public safety outcomes in the future. 

There is scope for our PSO members to grow and to support police and the community further and we will continue our strong advocacy on that front.