The trouble with Victoria's African youth crime statistics
Crime statistics published by Victoria police this summer reported that Sudanese and Somali-born Victorians were five times more likely to commit crimes than the wider community. Two reports, from 2010 and 2011, shed further light on the background to the relationship between young Africans and the Victoria police force in Melbourne.
The idea of the wider community here is vague enough to ignore any other indicators that may have a significant effect on crime statistics such as age, gender or class. Moreover, it concretises the marginalisation of these young people as outsiders. An educational DVD created by the police described a project as 'getting those kids to engage with police, and through police engage with the community'. The placement of African-Australian young people as outside of the community creates what one young person described as a 'guest mentality'. He describes the media as 'not looking at the picture as you being a part of society, but rather you are a guest who is allowed to come here and live here and be obedient'.
The idea of African youths being guests who must be obedient sheds light on the attitudes of police towards these young people. Smith and Reside record the issues that police perceive as causing the tension between the two groups: 'a perception of lack of respect for the law and law officials; a lack of cooperation by some young people; concern with poor attitudes and demeanour of some young people; and experience of verbal and physical violence directed at police by young people'. This attitude held by the police, along with a corresponding perception among young people of racial profiling, harassment and verbal and physical abuse, mirrors what Hurst and Frank describe as a 'self-fulfilling prophecy' where each side expects trouble from the other.
Trouble, of course, is not illegal. In the Australian context the term cuts across the difference between the statutory power of the police, and their symbolic authority, which they wish to uphold independently of the law. Smith and Reside report the police interpreting 'a young person’s refusal to assist them as a sign of a "bad attitude" and an affront to their authority'. Despite being legally entitled not to have to give their name and address when not charged, failure to do so is a non-statutory misdemeanour in the eyes of police authority. Further, young people asserting their legal rights is interpreted in the same fashion and 'often results in police hostility and aggression'.
The encounters that result in these instances of trouble are almost always instigated by the police. Young Africans men surveyed by Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre were 51.4% likely to have been stopped by the police within the last 30 days, considerably more than young men of Australian descent. Young men were often stopped several times in one day, prompting one youth to comment
'I see the problem starting as … they’re just targeting people … they wanna prove their dominance over the youth, you know, so that when they grow up they won’t act up and stuff. So they try and come around and show who’s the boss.'
The power imbalance between the two groups show this relationship as more than just a self-fulfilling prophecy created by two sides with concurrent lacks of trust. It is clear that it is the police who are in control of the sparking of trouble, as well as its interpretation under the law. Smith and Reside found many instances of police inciting youth who had done nothing wrong to commit acts which could be regarded as criminal.
'Yeah, cops do try to intimidate you and try to get you pissed off, try to make you do something ya know so they could charge you but yeah, and they will bash you if they have to you know? Like they’ll bash the crap out of you and if you throw a punch back you know you’re gone, there’s an assault of a police officer, ya know? Stuff like that.'
Incitements like this can be made using physical violence, taunting or racist abuse, and they often result in charges belonging to a group called 'the holy trinity', 'the trifecta', or 'ham cheese and tomato': resisting arrest, using obscene language and assaulting a police officer. It is not clear what proportion these police related crimes make up of the recently published crime statistics, but Smith and Reside’s survey records that 'of those incarcerated, their charges typically involved police-related offences'. Tamar Hopkins of the KCLC has suggested on newmatilda.com that the manifest disproportionality in policing may be the cause of the disproportionality in the statistics.
Significant, too, in the power imbalance between police and young Africans is the effectiveness of the system for complaining about police harassment or brutality, the Office of Police integrity (OPI). The Review of Victoria Police use of 'stop and search' powers found that only 12% of complaints were resolved. In addition to this, the complaints procedure itself kept many young people from filing a complaint. Smith and Reside describe the reasons for this as being a lack of faith in the system; the fact that complaints will be investigated by police officers; fear of physical retribution or increased harassment and a fear of ‘cover charges’, where arbitrary charges are made against those who complain or intend to complain. A community worker describes a case that illustrates how the failings of the complaints procedure mirror those all across the system:
'A young man who had been beaten up by the police went and made a complaint about it. It is a very serious complaint. If there was a call to the police because of a physical assault that would be taken very, very seriously. And if that had been a young person of African background who had assaulted somebody the police would go straight out there and try to find who that person was and if they couldn’t work out who that person was [then] they would find a collection of young people and take them back to the police station and they would certainly respond.'
Another young respondent reported being beaten up in a cell by multiple police officers and let out of the back door. When he came around the front to the reception to make a complaint, threats of further violence were made.
These stories contradict the reasons police suggest young people’s lack of trust in the police, attributing it to 'a migrant community’s "cultural memory" of improper, corrupt, and / or violent policing practices in their country of origin.' As Smith and Reside report, young immigrant communities’ high expectations of Australian police are severely disappointed by their experience of them. Within this racist and misinformed discourse, community policing initiatives attempt to
'dispel African young people’s "myths" about police, and educate them about … what constitutes "appropriate behaviour". Here "appropriate behaviour" included not running away from police, and obeying police directives to move on, even where police were not legally empowered to issue such a directive.'
Young people’s experiences cannot be dispelled as myths. What’s more, the police have no power to enforce acceptable behaviour. That they do, in restricting young people’s use of public space and in arbitrarily challenging people and finding fault with their attitude, is a large part of the problem. It echoes Judith Butler’s discovery of the 'subtle ruse of power', that 'to make trouble was … something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms'. Young people resisting over-policing may want to follow Butler’s conclusion that 'trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it'. The police, meanwhile, ought to stay out of trouble; to end their extra-statutory policing and to reposition themselves as a body serving the community, a community that includes African Australians.