Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions: monograph series no. 65

10.4 Aboriginal community-based police officers

Page last updated: 2008

Several jurisdictions engage community-based police officers in Aboriginal communities, with titles such as 'police liaison officers' or 'community constables'. The officers are expected to perform a variety of roles, including that of providing a link between sworn police officers and community residents. Evidence relating to the operation and outcomes of these schemes consists of anecdotal reports.

Bryce et al. reported on the use of police aides in APY communities (Bryce et al., 1991). Like warden scheme or night patrol members, police aides never have a neutral role in a community, as they are always in kinship relations to other people and so are already implicated in disputes. Thus the police aides' authority, grounded in Western notions of policing, sits somewhat uncomfortably with Pitjantjatjara values of individual autonomy and interconnectedness through relationship with others. Bryce et al. found that rounding sniffers up and locking them up became more problematic for police and police aides after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. They concluded that while police aides were an important part of the community response, they were limited in their effectiveness.

Similar observations emerged from a coronial inquest conducted in the APY Lands in 2002 into the VSM-related deaths of three youths (South Australia Coroner's Court, 2002). The coroner heard that a Community Constable Scheme had been established in the APY Lands in 1986, with four Anangu men selected to work in each of four communities, initially alongside four non- Aboriginal police officers. Communities were consulted about the appointments; the constables were expected to be engaged in community activities, and to act as a contact between police and the local community. After one year, however, the sworn police officers were withdrawn, leaving the Community Constables working on their own, with support from Marla Police Station. The scheme was subsequently expanded: by 1990, 37 Community Constable positions had been created across the state. In 1988 a non-Anangu Senior Constable was stationed in one APY community to supervise Community Constables throughout the Lands. This position remained filled until 1997, after which the SA Police found they were unable to recruit to the position. According to one witness at the inquest, the departure of the sworn police officer from the community coincided with an increase in petrol sniffing in the community.

Indeed, a theme that emerges from the coronial inquest is that Aboriginal community police officers cannot be expected to work effectively unless sworn police officers are also present in the community. Coroner Chivell concluded, on the basis of evidence presented to him, that the Community Constable Scheme was a worthwhile initiative, which could be further improved by additional training of constables. However, in his view the scheme was also constrained by cultural factors and the fact that constables were members of very small communities. Their main strengths, he suggested, lay in defusing situations and acting as liaison and intelligence officers (South Australia Coroner's Court, 2002, para. 11.61–11.62).

In evidence presented to a 2006 Senate inquiry into petrol sniffing, the Western Australian Police Service argued that, while Aboriginal Community Police Officers, when available, often provided liaison between sworn police officers and community residents, the service was more interested in encouraging Aboriginal people to enter the Police Service itself (Commonwealth of Australia Senate Community Affairs References Committee, 2006).