This was published on 24 June 2009 on ABC Unleashed: http://www.usyd.edu.au/news/84.html?newscategoryid=4&newsstoryid=3551
The NSW Police Forces' Aboriginal Employment Strategy to increase Aboriginal representation to four per cent will not be enough to improve Indigenous-police relations or reduce Indigenous crime and imprisonment.
Without systemic change, the recent announcement by the Premier and Commissioner will have little effect in changing police practice. Cultural change within the police force and supplementary self-policing programs within Indigenous communities are critical for the realisation of the police force's goals of developing partnerships with Aboriginal communities.
The method of Aboriginal recruitment into the police force as a means of better policing Aboriginal communities has existed since the early colonial period. Aboriginal people were recruited into the mounted police force and served as trackers in the colonisation process. However, it has not always been effective in improving relations with communities and has the capacity to worsen police-Aboriginal relations.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody pointed to the role of Aboriginal recruitment in dividing Aboriginal people. Aboriginal officers' allegiances become torn between the force and the community, and they expose themselves to a community perception of them as traitors. It was this perception that set in train a series of events that led to one of Australia's most notable deaths in custody of recent times - the death of Mulrunji at Palm Island in 2004. On the fateful night of Mulrunji's death, his initial engagement with the police was, allegedly, due to his criticism of an Indigenous officer as betraying his Indigenous community. Mulrunji was arrested for offensive language and placed in police custody, where he died forty minutes later.
Internationally, scholars have pointed to the limitations of this practice. Professor Paul Havemann has argued that Indigenous policing is a cheap substitute for self-government and autonomy. It can be merely a means for assimilation: increasing control rather than addressing inherent problems of incarceration and breakdown of Indigenous communities. Indigenisation of the state police may provide only a superficial, tokenistic and 'band-aid' solution to what is essentially a systemic problem.
Any recruitment policy needs to be matched with a cultural change in the police force. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody highlighted the need for greater cultural awareness on the part of all police officers - Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It called for induction training to include information on Indigenous culture, the history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous contact, and the history of Indigenous and police relations. The Evaluation of the Implementation of the NSW Police Service Aboriginal Strategic Plan by Professors Chris Cunneen and Janet Chan in 2000 note that cultural training requires delivery by local Indigenous people and regular refresher courses. However, even then training is unlikely to achieve meaningful cultural change.
A major impediment of internal change to the police force is that it does not alter community perceptions of the state police. Arising from this concern is a push for Aboriginal liaison officers to communicate between the police force and communities. Such officers should come from within communities and be representative of communities, rather than have a loyalty to the police force or a minority section of the community. Females need to rank among these officers especially to give victims support in domestic violence crimes.
However, it is only local policing by Indigenous communities that will address systemic problems of resistance to the state police force. Such tensions have been addressed in remote communities through policing initiatives such as night patrols. These are not driven by the police force but can work in conjunction with the force. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody strongly recommended community policing initiatives on the basis that such programs have 'the potential to improve policing and to improve relations between police and Indigenous people rapidly and to substantially lower crime rates'. Without more, recruitment is at best unlikely to achieve these results and at worst it could deteriorate Aboriginal-police relations.