Safe Injecting Rooms

At the pointy end

Members survey reveals crime rates, call outs have surged around the North Richmond injecting centre

By Brendan Roberts

There has been much commentary and debate on the merits and ills of the Medically Supervised Injecting Room in North Richmond, which was launched last year after fatal heroin overdoses reached a 17-year high in Victoria.

Now, at the midway point of a two-year trial, the centre has faced recent criticism from local residents and traders, who say the area has become more dangerous since the MSIR was opened in June last year.

The Police Association Victoria has recently added its voice to the debate, but only after it was informed by the experiences of members most affected by the MSIR’s operation.

TPAV’s expert Research and Advocacy team has compiled and assessed the experiences and perceptions of our members on the ground, both before and after the trial began, to gauge the resultant change in the policing landscape.

A survey was distributed to detective and uniform members stationed within the Yarra PSA, who most commonly respond to crimes reported in the vicinity of the MSIR.

The results of the survey found that

  • Nearly 80 per cent of members surveyed do not think the MSIR trial is working well from a policing perspective.
  • 68 per cent of members indicate the trial has impacted their workload day-to-day.
  • Increase in crime overall, public drug use and drug related activities in the Yarra PSA are the most widely cited negative outcomes of the MSIR trial raised by members.
  • Nearly 80 per cent of members surveyed indicate that crime has overall increased around the precinct in which the facility is located since it opened.
  • Members indicate that crimes against the person, property crime, drug-related crime and anti-social behaviour have all increased.
  • 64 per cent of members do not believe the facility should continue operating on an ongoing and permanent basis.
  • There has been an increase in complaints from local residents and local traders and increasing feelings among the local community that the area is no longer safe.

In all, 62 per cent of survey participants say that in their experience, crimes against the person have increased, 72 per cent say property crime has increased, 69 per cent report that drug-related crime has increased and 64 per cent say anti-social behaviour has spiked since the trial began.

These perceptions have been confirmed by key informants with direct access to relevant crime statistics for the vicinity. In particular, property offences including shop steal and ‘theft from motor vehicle’ have risen sharply.

These observations were also supported by many local Richmond residents and business owners who shared their views on radio in the wake of TPAV’s media release in relation to this issue last month.

Data from the survey reveals that the MSIR has a significant, negative impact on members in the Yarra PSA, with 68% of members indicating that the trial has impacted their workload day-to-day.

Members attribute this impact on workload to an increase in overall crime in the vicinity of the MSIR, as well as an increase in the presence of drug-affected persons and drug use in the area since the facility opened.

They report an increase in drug use and dealing taking place in vehicles, outside residential properties and in close proximity to the MSIR.

Said one member: “There are continual calls to the streets surrounding the MSIR regarding drug use in vehicles and outside residential properties. There are calls regarding trafficking near and behind the MSIR … residents are flagging us down while patrolling to speak about the impacts they have been facing since the opening of the MSIR.”

Another added: “The facility draws more offenders into the area to commit more crimes. It’s a one-stop shop now, commit your crimes, swap your stolen items for money, get your needles, get your heroin … everything is available in the same area.”

Data indicates that calls to police relating specifically to the area around the MSIR and the Elizabeth Street flats are now much more frequent, as are the number of mental health arrests under Section 351 of the Mental Health Act. Welfare checks have also spiked due to the presence of persons who appear to be heavily drug affected residing in the area.

The current policing approach towards the trial is failing according to the survey, with just 8 per cent of participants agreeing the current approach was working well.

Many members expressed that the policing approach to the introduction of the MSIR was undermined from the beginning, with some local management staff reporting that they received no consultation with regard to the policing approach around the MSIR, and feel powerless now in the decision making process.

The majority of members (65 per cent) indicate that they have been given specific instructions on how to police the precinct around the MSIR, while 20 per cent indicate that they have not been given instructions and 15 per cent are unsure.

Key informants suggest that members are confused as to what constitutes the ‘vicinity’ of the MSIR and how to police the area accordingly.

Further, members coming in from outside the PSA are not given detail on how to police with respect to the MSIR and ORU members attending the area to deal with larger level operations are, in many instances, not aware of the distinct policing protocols that exist within the Yarra PSA.

Concerns were also raised over inadequate resourcing for the area, with a lack of additional resources afforded to cope with the increases in crime in the area, while a specific need for more senior officers was raised.

Members surveyed also recognised the public benefits of the facility, with the most common one identified being the reduction in the number of overdoses in public places, including fatal overdoses.

Statistics show that, as at February 2019, there had been over 650 overdoses at the facility and no deaths.

It was also acknowledged that the MSIR gives police somewhere to send compliant drug users, through which users can be connected to additional support services and access medical assistance and personnel without tying up police resources.

Some participants expressed the need for greater collaboration between police and staff at the MSIR.

On the potential longevity of the MSIR, one member said: “It needs to change. It’s not a bad idea, but the execution is not there yet. They need to listen to residents, police and the wider community and start putting changes in place to deal with the major concerns being voiced.”

The Police Association will continue to liaise with affected members throughout the duration of the MSIR trial.