Politics And The Top Cop

Being the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police sounds like a terrible job. In the aftermath of Christine Nixon’s announcement to step down as Victoria’s top cop, her political masters have been full of praise, but her colleagues in crime fighting have been less complimentary. The upper echelons of the police force seem to be drenched in personal animosity and rivalry.

Some of Nixon’s critics really deserve to be ignored. In the wake of her resignation, the Victorian Police Association chose to emphasise that the most important thing the next chief commissioner should possess is a birth certificate from Victoria. Fair enough – unions are paid to look after their members first. But they could at least pretend not to have naked self-interest as their only focus.

Nevertheless, in March Nixon will leave Victoria Police with a mixed record at best. High-profile corruption scandals, the gangland killings, internal police reforms, her approach to domestic violence and community-based policing strategies have dominated the discussion about her successes or otherwise. The Government’s effusive praise of Nixon, however, ignores the increasing problems of basic law and order that have developed under her stewardship.

Yes, in aggregate, crime has gone down in recent years. Since 2001, when Nixon was appointed Chief Commissioner, the total crime rate has dropped by nearly 25%.

But the word “crime” is so broad as to be almost useless. If we look closely at the official police statistics, the Nixon legacy is much less impressive. Since 2002, crimes against the person – that is, homicide, rape, sex offences, assault and abduction – have jumped from fewer than 36,000 to nearly 43,000 incidents a year.

Instead of tackling this dramatic increase in violent crime, Victoria Police has been focusing on aggressive “blitzes” against utterly banal offences like jaywalking – that ridiculous crime committed by nearly everybody every day.

Show me someone who has never jaywalked and I’ll show you someone who has never left the house. Sure, the police should try to enforce every crime on their books, but they should also be a bit sensible about it.

The State Government could quadruple the number of police on the streets and still not successfully eliminate the scourge of jaywalking.

Can they really justify deploying Victoria Police’s limited resources on Swanston Street at 8am on Monday mornings when there is a violence problem on King Street at 4am every night?

Criticising the police force’s periodic jaywalking crackdowns might seem petty, but it actually raises some important questions about the rule of law in Victoria. Jaywalking is the sort of crime that most police would ignore, except for those times when there is a “blitz”. Enforcing one of the State Government’s most ridiculous social regulations does little more than annoy otherwise entirely law-abiding pedestrians.

Victorian police are proud that there has been an increase in the rate at which crimes are being solved. But much of this is because of cultural changes that have encouraged individuals to report cases of domestic violence and rape that have historically gone under-reported.

It is, of course, wonderful that Victoria’s thugs are being identified and caught after they assault someone. But from the victim’s perspective, it would be better not to be assaulted at all – no amount of detective work will encourage bruises to heal quicker.

The vast majority of Nixon’s highly publicised drop in overall crime rates is found in the category of crime against property – you are certainly less likely to be burgled or have your bike stolen than you were five years ago. But again, Victoria Police cannot really take too much credit for the increased use of bike locks, or the prevalence of storefront security guards, or for the increased popularity of home alarm systems.

If we look even closer at the crime statistics, the true state of Victorian crime becomes more worrying. Over recent years, crimes against the person have increasingly been seen in public, rather than private, locations – on public transport, in open spaces, on streets and sidewalks; the sorts of places that require regular patrolling.

It is these crime patterns that form the basis of the recent panic about violence in the city – a rare occasion in politics when there actually is fire where there is smoke. The 2am lockout may have been inept, ill-considered and unpopular, but it was actually trying to tackle a genuine problem: there just aren’t enough police on the streets to prevent crime.

Unfortunately, Nixon has chosen to emphasise that the violence in the city has been “booze-fuelled” – a description that tries to shift the blame for the sharp increase in urban violence off the police and on to Melbourne’s bars and pubs. No matter what fuels violence, it still needs to be dealt with by the police on the street. Liquor licence changes will never be a substitute for more cops.

But since 2002, patrol hours have decreased by nearly one-quarter. The numbers of sworn operational staff have declined as a percentage of the total police force. It seems that much of the State Government’s increase in police resources has been absorbed by administrative staff and bureaucrats. No wonder the Police Association, when it is being more sensible, has argued that Victoria’s police force is understaffed by at least 3000 officers.

With a rising rate of assaults and urban violence, Christine Nixon’s biggest legacy may simply be making law and order a political issue once again.