Police Regulation Amendment (Protective Services Officers) Bill 2010

I rise to speak on the Police Regulation Amendment (Protective Services Officers) Bill 2010. We are debating this bill in February 2011 because it was Labor that forced the government to actually do a bit of work and introduce the bill and have the minister deliver the second-reading speech back in December 2010; otherwise there would be no legislation being debated this sitting week and we would be doing that next month.

We are also debating this bill without the benefit of the vital oversight of the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee. Along with the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, SARC is one of the most important parliamentary committees, and we are debating this bill without the benefit of its Alert Digest. The Victorian Parliament website outlines the role of SARC. It states:

… all members of SARC are involved in the scrutiny of bills. SARC examines all bills introduced into Parliament. There is no exception with regard to the type of bills SARC may scrutinise.

There is one exception — that is, when the incoming government fails to establish SARC and it goes ahead with introducing legislation anyway.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr MERLINO — SARC raised the issue back in December, if you recall, Minister. This bill, like all the bills currently before the Parliament, is a skeleton piece of legislation. This bill is hardly two pages worth.

Honourable members interjecting.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Beattie) — Order! I know it is exciting for the minister to have the first bill before the Parliament, but I ask that we have a little order.

Mr MERLINO — Vital issues that are not in this bill are diverted and dealt with by either regulation or gazettal. So much for the openness and transparency that the coalition promised last year!

Let me make it clear: the opposition does not oppose this bill. Whilst this bill is seriously flawed, I acknowledge the clear mandate for it following the 2010 election — and this is an opportunity for me to congratulate the members of the coalition on their victory last November. The community expects the government to deliver this policy and deliver it effectively. More than simply not opposing this bill, we are holding the government to account to deliver this commitment in full. The Liberal-Nationals election policy was unambiguous. It stated:

Protective service officers … on every train station in metropolitan Melbourne and the major regional centres after 6 p.m. seven days a week …

… 940 PSOs … will provide blanket coverage …

… from 6.00 p.m. until the last train …

PSOs will be deployed exclusively on train stations and will not be diverted elsewhere.

This extraordinarily brief and, as I will outline, rushed and ill-thought-through Police Regulation Amendment (Protective Services Officers) Bill 2010 seeks to facilitate that policy. The bill amends section 118B(1) of the Police Regulation Act 1958, expanding the purposes for which a protective services officer (PSO) can be appointed to now include the protection of ‘the general public in certain places’.

The bill also repeals section 118B(1A) of that act, removing the legislative cap of 150 PSOs. Ironically, removing the cap was something that the coalition previously voted down.

Currently PSOs are limited to a specific security role of protecting public officials and places of public importance. As we all know, PSOs are deployed right here in the Victorian Parliament. They also protect places such as Government House, our courts, the Shrine of Remembrance and the Victoria Police Centre. This role was established in the 1980s following a government investigation into the security arrangements for senior public office-holders. The then Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Race Mathews, said that in his second-reading speech for the Police Regulation (Protective Services) Bill 1987, which established this new service. It is helpful to quote his remarks for this debate:

The establishment of this group will have the added benefit of releasing fully trained police to other areas of operational duty. However, the main intention of this initiative is to ensure that the level of security pertaining to the buildings which house senior public office-holders is maintained and that they are not left vulnerable to the violence and terrorism which we have witnessed in recent times.

For more than two decades that has been the clear and specific role of our PSOs, and our Victorian PSOs have carried out that security service role with distinction.

Essentially the coalition’s policy and the government’s bill before us today both seek to transform our PSOs from having that security service role to performing a crime prevention role. That raises significant issues for future policing in this state.

I acknowledge the Minister for Police and Emergency Services at the table. There is no doubt that perceptions about safety on our public transport system played a significant role in the lead-up to and during last year’s election campaign. Although crime on and around public transport is in decline, more work is required.
Mr Newton-Brown interjected.

Mr MERLINO — I will get to that. While under Labor there had been record funding for police, more police officers, greater powers and decreasing crime in Victoria, it was acknowledged that more needed to be done to make people feel safe. That is something that members on this side did indeed acknowledge.

On public transport safety, Labor’s policy was around more police riding the trains and more Metro staff on our stations. The coalition’s policies centred on PSOs on station platforms. To the victor goes the opportunity to implement their solution, and we will see that the government does it in full. With an inherited strong budgetary foundation and control of both houses of Parliament, the government has no excuse.

If previous debates on public safety in this place are any guide, I am sure that coalition members will make dire and inaccurate statements about crime and safety in Victoria. I take this opportunity to put a few facts on the table. Over the last decade the crime rate in Victoria has reduced by 30 per cent, which makes it the lowest since electronic recording commenced. Victoria is the only state where the rate of reoffending has declined for seven consecutive years. Tougher powers around banning troublemakers, random search provisions and on-the-spot fines for antisocial behaviour are making a difference to violence. The last quarterly crime statistics released last year showed a 27.5 per cent reduction in street assaults in the CBD and 12.4 per cent statewide compared to the same period 12 months before. Victoria has internationally competitive clearance rates of around 80 per cent. The Victoria Police transit safety division and the operational response unit have driven down crime on public transport by 48.4 per cent over the last decade.

In June last year the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office released the report entitled Personal Safety on the Metropolitan Train System. The audit examined how successful Victoria Police and the Department of Transport had been from mid-2005 in reducing crime on Melbourne’s train system. The report states:

Observing a crime on Melbourne’s train system is, in relative terms, a rare event …

Dr Peter Frost, the Acting Auditor-General, concluded that:

VicPol and the department have been successful in reducing crime on Melbourne’s train system since 2007-08.

He further concluded:

Applying evidence-based approaches from mid-2006 has proved effective in reducing crime and has provided a solid basis for realising further gains in the future.

 

An honourable member interjected.

Mr MERLINO — You should read the Auditor-General’s report. Essentially the Acting Auditor-General found that it was perceptions of safety that required greater focus, and he made a series of recommendations that were accepted by both the department and Victoria Police.

Last month our Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police, Simon Overland, said this about our public transport system:

The reality is that by world standards it’s safe.

By Australian standards, it’s safe. It is a pretty safe system.

This is reflected in the 2009-10 Victoria Police crime statistics, which show that the total number of crimes on public transport fell by 7 per cent over the past financial year and that in 2009-10 there were less than 17 crimes recorded for every million trips, and 60 per cent of them were property crimes.

There has been a lot of debate around public safety on our transport system, and a lot of that debate has been centred on numbers of police officers and, over the course of the past 18 months or so, on numbers of PSOs. The debate has been: increase the police presence and increase the security presence, which will reduce crime and improve perceptions of safety.

The difference in the record on delivering police numbers could not be starker between the two sides of politics.

The record of the previous Liberal-Nationals government — before the Baillieu-Ryan government — was absolutely appalling. It promised 1000 police yet cut 800. Labor’s record is a proud one. What we promised on police numbers, we delivered: over the course of the life of the Bracks and Brumby governments we delivered almost 2000 additional police officers.

It is not just I who says that. This is what the Leader of The Nationals, who is currently the Minister for Police and Emergency Services, said on l4 April last year:

They next say, ‘We have delivered’. You hear that refrain constantly. I accept what government members say. They have delivered on what they said they would. They have even done a little bit more.

Mr Ryan interjected.

Mr MERLINO — Members of the coalition want to rewrite history, but let me outline the final highlight of the Labor government. Labor’s last budget, in May 2010, has the following line on page 323 of budget paper 3, ‘Recruitment of additional police’, and on page 325 under that same heading the following appears:

Funding is provided for 1700 net additional sworn police officers …

Labor funded the 1700 police who will now be going through the system over the course of the next few years. They will be Labor’s police.

Mr R. Smith interjected.

Mr MERLINO — Of course there is always more that needs to be done.

Mr R. Smith interjected.

Mr MERLINO — If the Minister for Environment and Climate Change looks at the record on delivering police numbers, he will see why I will have Labor’s record any day compared to the coalition’s record.

Mr R. Smith — Did Victorians get it wrong?

Mr MERLINO — At the election, the Victorian public never gets it wrong. That is acknowledged, and I acknowledged it at the start. The minister must not have been listening.

When tackling crime, more always needs to be done, and improving public safety is a key ongoing responsibility of any government.

While Victoria is undoubtedly one of the safest places to live in the world, that is no consolation to a victim of crime, whether that crime happened on our public transport system or elsewhere. As the Acting Auditor-General pointed out in the report I referred to, more needs to be done to make people feel safe. That is why both sides of politics put significant yet different policies to the people of Victoria. Labor has a number of concerns about this bill. We maintain it is a deeply flawed approach to the issue and it risks not delivering long-term benefits to Victorian commuters.

There is the issue of recruitment and training. In my brief period as Minister for Police and Emergency Services in the last government, I saw firsthand the capacity constraints at the iconic police academy in Glen Waverley. Labor understood that in the process of delivering the greatest recruitment of police officers in the history of this state, substantial investment needed to be made into the academy and other training venues.

We committed $61 million to substantially upgrade and improve Victoria Police’s training capacity, and $50 million was allocated for the police academy for things such as a new virtual training range, a new centre for investigations, a new lecture theatre, the upgrading of classrooms, the construction of a new accommodation wing and the upgrading of kitchen and dining facilities. Labor also committed to upgrading regional training facilities in Wangaratta, Ballarat and Gippsland, including a second virtual training range.

Was there any such foresight from the coalition? There was not one bit; there was absolutely nothing from the coalition about training facilities. There was Labor’s additional police commitment, with 1700 officers in the May budget. In addition the coalition promised 940 protective services officers, but there was no substantial upgrade to the academy or any other training facility in Victoria on the horizon.

Taking into account the attrition of police officers and PSOs, we are talking about thousands and thousands of recruits going through a training system that is already at capacity. This is just one example of the coalition’s thought bubble — it releases a policy, and now it is a bill, without thinking of the requirements and consequences of its policies.

Despite the election campaign material of coalition members, PSOs are not police officers. Members only have to go as far as the Victoria Police website to see how it describes its own PSOs. It says:

Protective services officers are not empowered with the same powers of arrest as police.

It says their training:

… covers elements of the Victoria Police constables course …

Their role, through the protective services division of Victoria Police, is to provide ‘security services’. PSOs:

… are not ‘sworn’ members of Victoria Police …

PSOs receive 8 weeks training compared to 23 weeks for sworn police officers. The element of the constables course in which PSOs are trained include defensive tactics, firearms instruction as well as training for their specific work locations. I will compare that with the training of a recruit to become a police officer: the 23 weeks training includes law and policing procedures, communication skills, scenario training, operational policing drills, defensive tactics, firearms training and physical education, and the list goes on.

Victoria Police makes it clear to potential recruits who dream of becoming a police officer what they need to prepare for. The Victoria Police website states:

Recruit training is intense and requires dedication, commitment and self-discipline in order to succeed … Failure to meet the required standard may result in an applicant being expelled from the recruit training program.

It is a tough 23 weeks, and it needs to be. Policing is tough; it is complex; it is confronting. Our police officers are required to make split-second life-and-death decisions and often contend with people under the influence of drugs or alcohol or people suffering from a mental illness. In order to protect us and uphold the right, they have to deal with the very worst in our society. To prepare them for that vital task of protecting the general public, we train them intensively for 23 weeks. We put them on two years probation. We continually upgrade their skills.

Coalition members glibly say, ‘If PSOs are good enough to protect members of Parliament, they are good enough to protect the public’.

That is superficially a good line, but what they are really saying to the people of Victoria is that for the general public 8 weeks training is good enough. They say that 8 weeks training compared to 23 weeks training is good enough. That is what the coalition is saying. The coalition is seeking to transform the role of a PSO from a security service provider to a crime prevention role — that is, from protecting particular buildings to protecting the men, women and children of Victoria. Apparently this fundamental change in role and responsibility does not require any change in the duration of their training.

However, in order to improve perceptions of safety on public transport and deliver public value, PSOs must be able to assist commuters from a variety of backgrounds; they must be able to provide assistance and information to general members of the community; they must be able to administer emergency assistance to people in need, including first aid; they must be able to successfully manage individuals at risk of hurting themselves or others.

This is a fundamentally different role to providing security at an important public building. Every person who catches a train on our metropolitan system or in our regional centres will see two people in uniform on the platform. They will look like police and they will be armed. The Victorian community will absolutely expect those two people to have the training and powers of a police officer, but they will not.

In terms of training, as I have already mentioned, we are in the midst of this greatest recruitment of police officers in Victoria’s history. This is Labor’s legacy. The many thousands of people who dream of becoming a police officer will apply over the coming months and years. Victoria Police does a great job in ensuring that the talent of recruits is kept at a high standard during those periods of high intake. That quality control will be tested like never before because of this historic intake.

Adding into that mix another 940 PSOs, this government and the Minister for Police and Emergency Services have a responsibility to ensure that quality is not compromised, particularly as the coalition has promised to deliver the 940 PSOs in this first term.

While I am sure there will be many applications to become a PSO, it is also expected that attrition will be high. We are talking about a job that is incredibly specific and, for many people, unattractive: 8-hour shifts walking up and down a station platform of about 400 square metres or so and permanent twilight-night shifts. Imagine, Acting Speaker, being in the dead of winter on a low-patronage station, cold, bored and having extremely limited career opportunities. Attrition will be a great issue.

The next issue I want to address is around the capital infrastructure requirements to make this policy work.

The government has hardly addressed this issue at all. Permanent staff at every station from 6.00 p.m. will need toilets and other basic facilities. There are many stations that do not have these facilities. We have the member for Hastings in the house. In his press release of 9 November he says he is very happy about the new PSOs to be stationed on the Stony Point line at Stony Point, Crib Point, Bittern, Hastings, Tyabb, Somerville, Baxter and Leawarra stations. When you look at the facilities these stations offer you see that seven of them are without basic amenities for those PSOs. That situation needs capital from this government, but it has not allocated it.

If a PSO apprehends somebody they find committing a crime, how do they deliver that person to the police? Will they have to call the local police and wait for them to pick up the offender? Is that what is going to happen? What did the member for Kew say in the matter of public importance debate in November 2009? This is what he said:

A PSO is not just someone who is going to get on the phone and make a call to the police …

If they are not going to get on the phone to police, what are they going to do with the offender? There are no vehicles provided for in this policy announcement. After a PSO arrests someone what do they do next? They hold the person they have arrested, and their partner will call Victoria Police. Local police resources will then be diverted to the station to pick up the offender. How do the weapons get to and from the station? The weapons need to be secured in a safe location. Has that cost been included in the coalition’s announcement? I do not think so. They have not done the work.

Mr Burgess interjected.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Beattie) — Order! The member for Hastings has had the misfortune to go from one side of the chamber to the other but still be right in the Speaker’s ear. I ask him to temper his voice.

Mr MERLINO — This solution to fix the problem will not free up police resources. There is not an overall improvement in the allocation, delivery and flexibility of police resources. On the contrary this solution will require the utilisation of both PSOs and local police resources. I do not have a lot of time left in my contribution to talk about the issues of escalation and weapons risk as well as the issues raised by Metro chief Andrew Lezala and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union. Perhaps other speakers will talk about this.

I will perhaps talk about how this is going to impact on the transport budget. The Leader of The Nationals, in the matter of public importance debate in November 2009, said this is a very carefully costed program. The member for Yan Yean at the time then reported the Leader of The Nationals’ comments that it would be funded out of the transport budget, not out of the budget for police. The member for Yan Yean then posed a question about what the then opposition was going to cut. The member for Kew, now the Minister for Crime Prevention, piped up and said, ‘Nothing’. Nothing was going to be cut. That is what he said in a matter of public importance debate in November 2009. Twenty premium stations including, I am sorry to say, one in my electorate — Upwey station — that would have been staffed from the first train to the last train and seen capital upgrades improving the amenities and the security of patrons have been shelved by the coalition government. The coalition lied to the public in the debate 18 months ago, and now we are seeing its true colours.

On the issue of The Nationals reverting to type, there are 212 metropolitan stations. There are 85 regional V/Line stations. Every single metropolitan station is going to be staffed and 13 V/Line stations are going to be staffed. What about the other 72? Tiny metropolitan stations like Crib Point, Baxter and Officer will be staffed, but that is not necessary for V/Line stations such as Bunyip on the Gippsland line or Rockbank on the Ballarat line! This is The Nationals reverting to type. They say anything to get into power, but when they have the reins of government they absolutely screw the regions. That is what they do. This is a snub for commuters who live between or beyond those regional centres.

There are lessons to be learnt. This has happened elsewhere. What the government is introducing is a second-tier police force that is less well trained and has fewer powers. In the United Kingdom in 2002 police community support officers were introduced. There are now some 16 000 of them.

They are known as ‘plastic police’ because they do not have the training, they do not have the authority, they do not have the powers and they do not have the equipment. They were established to assist the sworn police officers in tackling antisocial behaviour, but above all it was about having a greater presence.

It helped, because in large letters on the back of their uniforms is the word ‘Police’. But the public reaction to the drowning of a schoolboy in 2007 is a case in point. Ten-year-old Jordan Lyon drowned in a pond after trying to help his stepsister, who was in difficulty. Two police community support officers were first on the scene but did not enter the water. They called the police and waited. Sergeant Craig Lippitt arrived, and, with the boy’s stepfather, dragged the boy out of the water, but it was too late. At an inquiry into the boy’s death, Detective Chief Inspector Philip Owen defended the actions of the police community support officers. He informed the inquiry that they:

… are not trained to the same extent as police officers so wouldn’t have been taught how to deal with a situation like this.

He further commented that they are not trained to ‘deal with major incidents’.

An English Associated Press Newswire article of 27 September 2007 quotes Bob Ayers, a London-based former US intelligence officer, as saying:

If you dress somebody up so that they look like a policeman and stick them in the general population, we shouldn’t be surprised when the general population expects these surrogates to behave and act as real policemen …

It’s a subterfuge. We are trying to convince the people that they have more police … than there actually are.

Or consider these comments by Libby Purves in the Times of 25 September 2007:

… the public are entitled to be irritated and confused. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it ought to be able to peck like a duck.

Paul Kelly, chairman of the Greater Manchester Police Federation, said in the same Associated Press Newswire article:

We should do away with (community support officers) because they are a failed experiment …

The Police Federation of England and Wales has said it has:

… always opposed the creation and presence of an ill-equipped and ill-trained second layer of law enforcers. We believe it causes members of the public more confusion as to who has what power, in what circumstances and for how long …

These comments go to the heart of the problem of a second-tier police force. It is the path we are on.

There have been public comments made about the capacity of the academy, about the quality and duration of the training, the issue of getting weapons to and from train stations and the impact on the cost of the proposal. These are the questions that need to be answered.

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