Wayne Gatt: Violence against police must not become normal

Published by the Herald Sun on August 14, 2019.

On Monday night in Sunbury, a police car was shot at in a random attack on the force. A couple of hours earlier in Mont Albert, two police cars were rammed and the offending driver attempted to get away, injuring a police officer as the car reversed into him.

These events in isolation are shocking enough: police becoming targets because they are wearing the uniform and cars being used as lethal weapons against officers doing their job.

Unfortunately, they are not isolated events but the latest examples of a rising tide of violence directed at police officers and PSOs in Victoria from within the criminal community.

Last year there were more than 2300 assaults on Victoria Police officers. Instances where police are shot at are increasing too, with criminals all too willing to fire at police officers.

We have seen officers shot at by fleeing offenders, during searches and at the end of car chases. We have seen PSOs targeted while they are patrolling at railway stations.

Ramming of police cars has become so prevalent, the state government has passed laws that carry a two-year custodial sentence when people intentionally endanger an emergency service worker and cause injury.

The prevalence of weapons in the community is high and drug and substance abuse remain a driver of behaviour that sees police assaulted. A policewoman was punched to the face this week at a football game, somewhere that should be family oriented and not result in a hospital visit for an officer.

It’s hardly surprising that experienced officers on the front line tell me there has never been a more dangerous time to be a police officer.

How long will it be before we lose another officer to this violence?

The human cost to our members is a big concern to the Police Association. The four officers who were the target of the Sunbury shooting were naturally shaken and have been given welfare support. The officer run over in Mont Albert was admitted to hospital.

Beyond Blue’s study of emergency service workers in 2018 showed that 25 per cent of police reported being physically assaulted and attacked on more than one occasion and that resulted in much higher levels of psychological distress. Overall, one in three emergency service workers experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress, levels far exceeding those in the general population. And our members are three times more likely than the general population to have a suicide plan.

The police officers in Sunbury are members of their local community — they are parents, brothers and sisters and they have families who love them and worry for them at work.

They are the front line and we need to protect them better.

I don’t profess to have all the answers to this rising tide of violence towards police but there are some things that would make a difference.

Our members want to see the courts impose sentences that more closely resemble the maximum terms available in legislation for these crimes. Our discussion within the community about sentencing has been around minimum sentences, a position borne out of sheer frustration when penalties handed down have been so consistently inadequate.

Proper sentencing not only takes dangerous people off the streets but also sends a message from the whole of society that violence directed towards police officers and PSOs won’t be tolerated.

We also need to reduce the stress on police officers more generally. Both the Chief Commissioner and I have made mental health in the force a core issue.

The Mental Health Royal Commission is timely and should focus on police and emergency service workers and the difficulties they face when protecting the community.

The next industrial agreement for Victoria Police must deal with issues such as workload and the resulting stress and provide mandatory gaps between shifts and adequate rest so we reduce the stress on our officers.

That is the message given to us by our members — make our workplace as safe an environment as possible.

Then there is the broader question of inculcating respect for police officers and, in fact, at all levels in the community generally. It is a sad state of affairs when we see so many cases of random acts of violence against some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

It is a fact that people who are so willing to assault police will have little or no regard for anyone else in the community.

Once we would have been shocked when events like these occurred — and they were infrequent. Now we at risk of becoming accustomed to this behaviour and in doing so I wonder if we are in the process of normalising it.

Ordinary life should not start to resemble a game of Grand Theft Auto.

We need to return to some basics.

Violence is wrong.

The law — the rules our society set to govern ourselves — need to be respected.

Police and those in emergency services generally — who serve and protect the broader community — need to be respected.

People need to be responsible and accountable for their actions.

We can’t take community safety for granted. When the people who are there to protect us are regularly being shot at, run over and their cars rammed, we know we have reached a line in the sand in Victoria.

At every level we need to reinforce the values of respect. Not just for police — for everyone.

We need to make clear to those who resort to violence that they bear the personal consequences of their actions — a significant prison term.