What does the next generation think of today’s issues? The Big Smoke’s Next Gen program publishes Australian students mentored by TBS writers. Today, Josie Jakovac (16) discusses the future methods of law enforcement she’ll have to abide by.
Student: Josie Jakovac
Mentor: Ugur Nedim
Topic: Future-proofing Australia’s police-youth relationship
We are all familiar with the tension that exists between young people and the police. Scrolling through social media, surfing television channels, browsing online news sites, it doesn’t take long before we come across cases of alleged police misconduct or comments inciting hatred towards officers.
In 1983, Indigenous youth John Pat was found dead inside the Roebourne Police Station, suffering serious aberrations to the head from four constables who were supervising him.
Almost 30 years later, a 14-year-old on day release from a rehab clinic was capsicum-sprayed and tasered despite posing no physical threat to officers – the child was so traumatised by the experience that taser cam footage showed him crying out for his deceased mother.
In 2012, Melissa Dunn was brutally attacked by officers outside a Sydney McDonald’s restaurant for allegedly resisting arrest and hindering police. The 16-year old was eventually found not guilty by the Children’s Court and the officers were criticised for using an “inordinate amount of force”.
This disproportionate amount of negative publicity – both domestically and abroad – has fostered an attitude of fear, distrust and even anger among a growing portion of Australian youth. This is supported by the results of the 1997 Seen and Heard report, where 78% of juvenile interviewees stated that police rarely treat young people with respect.
“The police stereotype kids according to what school you come from, what your background is, what colour you are. Kids should be treated the same no matter who or what you are.”
“Police look down on us and walk around as if they have the authority to trample over us. I’ve never met a policeman who respected me.”
But this shouldn’t be the case. Not only does this complicate the process of law enforcement for officers, impairing public safety and moral order, but it also may lead to vulnerable children deliberately failing to report crime or assist in its investigation. This compromises their access to support services and adequate protection entitled under the law. It is thus an imperative for the interests of justice that these interactions are improved.
Sergeant Denise Lynch (a Research, Education and Development Officer for Youth Command NSWPF) shares her view on this issue:
“From a young age some children are taught to either fear or be defiant towards authority, which evokes a reaction from both sides. Police tend to respond by being protective and often reactive, which is made even worse when misinterpreted by the young people.”
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“Police have an inherent need to nurture and protect. This is met with the inherent need for risk taking or defiance for some young people. As a result negative interactions and perceptions develop, by both parties… Negative interactions are the ones often focused on in movies and social media. It is not very often that those positive moments of mutual respect are shared, nor the uplifting news stories where a person’s life has been turned around or saved by a single action or comment by a police officer.”
Another Constable of the NSWPF (who requested to remain anonymous for the purposes of this article) believes, likewise, that social media has had a significant impact on the development of these skewed perceptions:
“I have seen incidents that my colleagues and I have attended, filmed by media and put on social networking sites such as Facebook… All it takes is for one person to comment something inaccurate, cruel or degrading of police officers and many people believe and follow it, even if they’ve never interacted with police themselves. This, in turn, leads to the disrespect of police and a disregard for the law”.
But what is being done to improve this issue, and where do we go from there?
The action plan: present and beyond
Present relations between police and young people are governed by the:
- Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW) (LEPRA),
- Children (Criminal Proceedings) Act 1987 (NSW),
- Young Offenders Act 1997 (NSW),
- Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW),
- Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), and various other pieces of legislation.
The provisions and responsibilities under these acts include:
- Children have the right to have a responsible adult present during police questioning (in addition to lawyer or legal aid adviser). This person is commonly referred to as an “interview friend”. If the child is over 14 years, they have to agree on who this person is.
- Police must caution a child about their rights, and ensure that the child understands them. The Police Custody Manager must also inform children of their automatic entitlement to Legal Aid and give them an opportunity to contact the free legal advice service.
- Police must only arrest juveniles if they “know or believe on reasonable grounds that the person has committed or is about to commit an offence” (LEPRA) and use “reasonable force” to secure their arrest. Furthermore, common law (that made by the decisions of judges) states that arrest should only be used as a “last resort”.
The ambiguity of these terms, namely “reasonable grounds” and “reasonable force”, often complicates an officer’s ability to enforce the law, and is one of the leading factors that sparks public outcry about alleged instances of police brutality and professional misconduct.
However, over the past few years, the implementation of the NSW Police Force Youth Strategy 2013-2017 has begun to improve these interactions.
“There are many great things police and young people are doing together that aren’t seen,” Lynch states. “For example, NSWPF Youth Command work closely with Police Youth Citizen Clubs, where young people are empowered through police and community partnerships. We get young people active in life, develop their skills, character and leadership as well as preventing and reducing crime by and against young people.
“State-wide, there are so many programs and positive interactions between young people and police that are missed in favour of sensationalising the negative. We have over 250 police in NSW whose fulltime work is focussed on working with young people either as a Youth Liaison Officer (YLO), School Liaison officer (SLP) or Youth Case Manager (YCM). These officers deliver crime prevention messages and offer citizenship and leadership camps to over 200,000 NSW young people annually!”
She explained that the majority of officers in youth-related roles have done extensive training and must do so on an annual basis. This is supplemented by workshops and short courses about communication, interviews with children and young people, domestic violence, drug and alcohol, cybercrime, social media, anger management, mental health, and more.
“Ongoing training and education about the issues faced by young people is imperative to building and maintaining good interactions and relationships between young people and police.”
All these educative and action-based initiatives have directly begun to shift negative perceptions. Youth are beginning to re-establish trust in police officers, most starting to realise that police are the not “the bad guys”. Likewise encouraging officers’ interactions with children works to destroy the stereotype that all young people are reckless, rebellious and thus dangerous, encouraging them to be more patient and empathetic. However, much more work is still needed. Lynch comments:
“Police in youth roles make up only a small portion of the 16,000+ sworn officers in the NSWPF, and more often than not young people will interact with police that haven’t received the specific training. However this is slowly evolving with training about young people being rolled out for all police across NSW… Our knowledge and understanding of the world is largely shaped by media and social media, especially for young people. I think that highlighting the positive interactions and outcomes more would significantly change perceptions.”
Final words to the youth of NSW
When asked to share a final comment that she would direct to the young people in NSW, the anonymous constable stated that “police are not here to cause problems or harass people, we are simply just doing our job which is to protect and serve our community. We want to encourage young people to grow up doing the right thing and seeing the police as friends, people they can trust.”
Likewise, Lynch shared “the NSW Police Force is very different to what it was years ago. Police no longer give kids a ‘swift kick in the backside’ for misbehaving – rather there are specific structures in place to try and support, encourage and empower young people to be their best.
“Many of us, particularly those in youth operative roles, try to change these interactions and perceptions. For all those moment in the shopping centres where the parent has tried to scare their child with our uniformed presence, I get down to the child’s level, smile and say ‘No, we won’t take you to gaol. But it you were ever scared or lost, we will help you find your mum and dad, and we will keep you safe’. And then I give them a ‘COPS ARE TOPS’ sticker.
“We’d love to start seeing good news stories shared.”
This article is part of a series for The Big Smoke Next Gen.
The Big Smoke Next Gen is a program which matches professional and experienced writers, academics and journalists with students who wish to write non-fiction articles and voice their opinions on what is shaping the nation.
For more information about our program at The Big Smoke, or to become a mentor, please contact us.