‘Heavy cost’: Patrols at Melbourne train stations slump as police feel pinch

Published by The Age on 26 February 2021

The number of Melbourne train stations patrolled by protective services officers dropped from 216 to a low of 52 in recent months in another sign of the pinch on Victoria’s overburdened police force.

Internal police documents reveal the number of “premium stations” regularly guarded by PSOs sank to 52 in August, despite assurances from Chief Commissioner Shane Patton on Tuesday that the number had not dropped below 83.

Premium stations are those whose ticket booths are staffed from morning until the last train service, such as Southern Cross, North Melbourne, Footscray, Ringwood and Sunshine.

At the security initiative’s peak before the coronavirus pandemic, PSOs had a visible, ongoing presence at all 216 metropolitan and four regional train stations statewide for at least part of the day.

Since the start of the month, officers have been keeping a visible presence at 97 stations. The remaining 119 are covered by roving, part-time patrols – a sign of the ongoing strain of coronavirus-related assignments.

Police union secretary Wayne Gatt said he was concerned short-term changes introduced during Victoria’s lockdowns were becoming more permanent following the decision by overstretched police stations across Melbourne’s south-east to shorten their opening hours over the last month.

“Given the continued commitment to hotel quarantine, that will always come at a heavy cost,” he said.

About 800 police, including 300 of the state’s 1473 PSOs, are working in the hotel quarantine program that Premier Daniel Andrews paused indefinitely two weeks ago. Hundreds more have been redeployed across Victoria to enforce rules introduced as part of the state of emergency.

Mr Patton told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that PSOs have “at all times maintained coverage at those [83] premium stations”.

However, a briefing document prepared for Mr Patton in August and released to the opposition under freedom of information laws stated that as of August 5, “the nightly deployment to the metro train network reduced from 216 stations to 52 premium stations only”.

A Victoria Police spokeswoman did not respond to questions asking for clarification of Mr Patton’s statements.

She said changes were made in August during stage four restrictions that “ensured we could remain flexible while maintaining coverage across the entire public transport network”, with PSOs travelling between stations on trains.

Opposition spokesman for police and community safety David Southwick said the government’s coronavirus measures, such as last week’s five-day lockdown, had meant extra PSOs were stripped from train stations and “left commuters’ safety in the hands of a lucky dip”.

“Whether in hotel quarantine, on borders or at protests, this is the latest example of police and PSOs being left to pick up the pieces of yet another government failure,” he said.

In response to multiple police stations closing to the public for all or part of the day, police last week introduced a QR code at 27 stations from South Melbourne to Sorrento that visitors could scan to be advised of the nearest open station.

In one illustration of the early ramifications, a woman who knew she was on the brink of a seizure walked to Mooroolbark police station, a 24-hour station prior to the pandemic, seeking urgent assistance on the night of February 3.

After arriving at the shuttered front door, closed because of shortened opening hours, the woman had a seizure, hit her head on the concrete steps and fell unconscious.

A police vehicle returned to the closed station 10 minutes later to find the woman gasping for small breaths of air. Officers administered first aid and revived her.

Mr Gatt pointed to shortened reception hours as an example of reasonable changes during Victoria’s second lockdown, but cautioned against morphing these changes into a permanent approach without proper planning and community consultation.

“If changes to station opening hours are being considered then that’s OK. But just because a place is quiet, say at night time, that does not automatically mean the service should be discontinued,” he said.

“Quiet times can be when some people are at their most vulnerable.

“Maintaining accessible places where victims can go and know for certain they will find police there is vitally important.

“Changes to services like this need to be spoken about openly. As we saw with the woman in Mooroolbark, it can be genuinely dangerous if we don’t.”