….but the data tells a more complex story:
There’s a concerning trend in the kids we’re locking up. For some, it’s clear evidence of racist policing.
While overall youth crime rates have declined in Victoria, the imprisonment of African-Australian youth has spiked.
African (predominantly South Sudanese) youth comprise at least 19 per cent of young people in custody despite being less than 0.5 per cent of Victoria’s youth population.
But are prejudice and police tactics behind numbers, or is the answer more complicated?
In 2012, a number of young African-Australians lodged a complaint of racial discrimination against Victoria Police, alleging they’d been subject to ongoing racial profiling in the Melbourne suburbs of Flemington and North Melbourne between 2005 and 2009.
The case was eventually settled in 2013 with Victoria Police agreeing to review its practices with migrant communities.
Just three years later, the notion of racial profiling by Victoria Police was again thrust into the public sphere.
Between 2016 and 2018 a small number of African-Australian youth were involved in a number of highly publicised offences.
These incidents received extensive media attention — with some outlets criticised for politicising their coverage and demonising the African-Australian community.
For some commentators and community advocates, racial profiling was a factor in this sequence of offending, and the coinciding spike in African-Australian youth imprisonment — which has now reached concerning levels.
If racialised policing tactics are implicated, or even partly implicated, in rising African-Australian offending rates in Victoria, then this would be a gross violation of procedural fairness for a vulnerable population.
It also alleges a systemic bias of the sort that led to that 2012 discrimination complaint.
Young people say they’re targeted
In a number of recent community surveys, African-Australian youth say they’re being targeted and harassed by police in public places because of their race.
While the sample sizes of these reports are small, the concerns raised by the participants are similar to those expressed in the 2012 lawsuit.
For some African-Australian youth, perceptions of police are often an extension of how they see society at large treating them.
After all, if someone has experienced racism in the broader community, they can develop a sense of being rejected by society.
This can lead to feeling devalued and hyper-vigilant when they encounter law enforcement, and for some a justifiable sense of frustration.
For people who are regularly breaking the law, police attention is expected and should not come as a surprise.
But there are occasional incidents of overzealous policing, and perhaps isolated incidents of profiling.
Police behaviour can also stigmatise, even if it is unintended.
A young person who is publicly stopped and questioned on the street as part of routine police activity may feel singled out and humiliated.
There is always room for improvement to ensure that people are treated with dignity and that procedural fairness is adhered to.
But it’s unlikely police services have the explicit intention to disfavour particular cultural groups.
For the most part, police are reacting to information given to them by the public.
So what is behind the over-incarceration?
Higher rates of African-Australian youth imprisonment are most likely because of an increase in violent criminal activity by some members that group.
A recent study pointed to the significantly higher rate of “crimes against the person” by South Sudanese-born youth compared to Australian-born youth between 2015 and 2018.
Crimes against the person include serious offences such as robbery and assault, which often involve less police discretion. They’re also crimes that tend to receive custodial sentences.
In contrast, rates for less serious crimes, such as public order and drug offences, have remained stable and relatively low for South Sudanese-born youth.
If police profiling of African-Australian young people is pervasive, one might have expected public order and drug offences to climb during a period of intense media coverage, given that such crimes generally involve more police discretion.
One may also expect to see over-representation right across the African-Australian diaspora if profiling was both rampant and regularly pulling kids into the justice-system.
However only specific African-Australian sub-groups (i.e., South Sudanese) have been over-represented in recent years.
This is likely the result of those groups being collectively exposed to a number of socio-economic and environmental risk factors that increase the likelihood of young people engaging in crime.
It is unlikely that alleged racial profiling by Victoria Police members is driving the imprisonment rates of African-Australian young people.
This does not suggest in any way that racial profiling does not occur at all. Some African-Australian young people have experienced adversarial confrontations with police, however it’s not known how widespread these experiences are across the community.
Over-involvement in serious crimes most likely explains the concerning trends in African-Australian youth imprisonment.
But while Victoria Police may not be part of the problem, they can be part of the solution.
How police can help
Police are often expected to deal with the outcomes of entrenched social problems.
Young people with complex needs often end up in the criminal justice system because there are few opportunities to intervene in other ways.
An emerging approach from overseas has provided us with one. Developed in the US, the model encourages strong partnerships between law enforcement and community service providers to address urban violence.
While aspects of the model are not new (similar versions have been trialled in Scotland to counter knife violence) the combination of three principles are pivotal to the intervention:
- ‘Focus’ requires police to expend their energies and resources on the people and places where offending is likely to occur. By observing higher-risk individuals, they are less likely to cast a wide net and profile law-abiding young people.
- ‘Balance’ involves police immediately connecting high-risk young people with trusted service providers and mentors that can address the young person’s complex needs and offer them pathways out of crime. This provides a non-punitive intervention for young people who are at-risk for a serious offence.
- ‘Fairness’ has police earning the support and legitimacy of the communities that experience the most intervention. This involves relentless outreach, transparency, and an open line of communication with the community to ensure that trust is maintained. Importantly, the community needs to be reassured that policing is held accountable and that avenues for complaint are taken seriously.
There are already examples of this approach being piloted in parts of Victoria on a smaller scale.
Officers in the South and West of Melbourne are working alongside youth workerswho provide initial support and referrals to services for high-risk young people who have contact with police.
These efforts should be given the time and resources to determine their effectiveness with different culturally and linguistically diverse populations.
There needs to be a broader commitment and investment from policy decision makers, to ensure that more African-Australian youth can reach their potential and are not lost to the justice system.
Police are the gatekeepers to our criminal justice system. But they cannot ignore serious acts of violence that threaten the safety of the community.
However they can assist young people coming into contact with the justice system who have complex needs and are at-risk for serious violence.
Through proactive community partnerships with trusted community-based cultural, health and legal service providers, police can help re-orient the delinquent pathways of vulnerable young African-Australians.
Dr Stephane Shepherd is an associate professor of forensic psychology at the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Swinburne University and an ABC Top 5humanities scholar for 2021.