16 May 2024

A new law to give police more power to find knives is a doubled-edged sword

| Ian Bushnell
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Should a metal detecting wand be part of police kit to find knives and other weapons? Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

Whenever terrible events happen, it is a natural response to think about what could have been done to prevent it.

The Bondi and ANU knife attacks were terrifying in their randomness and are now being used to justify calls for yet another increase in police powers.

The Canberra Liberals want the ACT Government to consider legislation akin to Queensland’s Jack’s Law, named after a teenager who was stabbed to death, which NSW has emulated.

It would allow police to use metal detection wands on people without reasonable suspicion in designated areas such as shopping malls, public transport hubs and nightclubs.

The carrying of knives is already an offence in the ACT, and police can stop and frisk people considered suspicious.

However, the deployment of metal detectors would take this police activity to a new level.

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‘Keeping Australians safe’ rolls off the tongues of politicians these days like a mantra that justifies all kinds of infringements on hard-won civil liberties that seem so easily lost in these uncertain times, embellished by 24/7 news feeds dominated by true crime.

Many people believe that the amount of weaponry seized in the wake of Jack’s Law passing in Queensland vindicates the new police power.

It is argued that using metal-detecting wands has prevented these weapons from being used, possibly saving lives.

But that is just speculation.

What needs to be remembered is that in many – if not most – violent public attacks, mental illness is often a factor, and that is something the politicians should deal with. These are also rare, out-of-the-blue events.

In the case of the 2020 Weston skatepark stabbing, the incident occurred in a location far from any police patrol.

The fatal 2020 Kokomos brawl in the city, also cited by the Liberals, involved those not known for respecting the law.

Police would have had to have been on the spot to stop the kind of explosive violence that occurred, wand or no wand.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on recorded crime (victims) from 2022, most homicides and related offences in the Territory did not involve a weapon of any kind (78 per cent), and there was a similar trend for assaults (89 per cent had no weapon involved).

So violent knife crime, deplorable though it may be when it occurs, is not common in the ACT.

If a new law is passed, police will be asked to randomly test people going about their normal business at the shops, which will likely give them even more incentive to approach the usual suspects.

So people need to ask themselves, do they feel unsafe enough to submit themselves to regular and public scanning in what is, in effect, another extension of the surveillance state?

It should not be compared with the scanning of people at airports and other secure areas in Canberra.

Police themselves should be wary of what inevitably will be a PR disaster. Citizens will have to empty their pockets of keys, phones and any metal paraphernalia they may be carrying, which is why they will tend to go for the usual suspects, from whom there will be even more accusations of profiling and harassment.

Does the proposal stand up to a cost-benefit analysis?

In recent years, through the war on terror, COVID-19 and the continuing obsession with crime, a political penchant for a legal fix persists, usually a law framed for a specific reason that seems reasonable enough but may have unintended consequences and when added to all the others, contributes to a constant erosion of rights.

In Is the Criminal Law a Lost Cause, Andrew Ashworth says governments view this “chaotic” use of criminal law as “a multi-purpose tool, often creating the favourable impression that certain misconduct has been taken seriously and dealt with appropriately”.

“But from any principled viewpoint, there are important issues – of how the criminal law ought to be shaped, of what its social significance should be, of when it should be used and when not – which are simply not being addressed in the majority of instances.”

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Out of the moral panic fanned by click-and-rate-driven media and politicians, we seem all too willing to lose any sense of proportion and allow the government to deny more and more of our individual agency.

Bad things happen, people commit heinous crimes, and people should not carry weapons of any kind unless authorised.

But unless we want to live in a society where we may be ‘safe’ but not necessarily from the police and the state, we should be clear-headed about calls for laws that detract from our way of life, not enhance it.

Canberra is one of the safest places on the planet. Our police already have enough tools to do their job. They don’t need to be waving wands around on the off chance that somebody is going to run amok.

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Think this needs more consultation and evidence. The Liberal’s always are keen to pull on jack boots.

“… the continuing obsession with crime …”

So having police at all — assuming they’re basically there to deal with crime — is just an “obsession”? Seems like a very Greens thing to say.

So police apprehend a knife wheeling thug, who then proceeds to the revolving door of bail – rinse and repeat

On top of what has already been said, personally IMHO, I can see this power being abused, by being used against those who already experience discrimination, from the AFP.

Can’t remember the last time I actually saw a cop walking around on the beat, the only time I do see them is if there obviously has been some incident and then he have a few of them standing around. Might be too late by then to get the metal detecting wand out.

I believe you’re right. We’re being driven to this mostly by fear drummed up by media, competing for clicks, and politicians looking for votes. The stats don’t back up the approach, and it will only add a larger effectively passive workload on existing police.

For once, I agree with Ian. Canberra doesn’t have a “knife crime problem” to begin with. A couple of incidents over a 5 year period is pretty good compared to the rest of the world. We don’t need to be throwing away even more basic civil liberties over a beat up non issue.

GrumpyGrandpa2:09 pm 17 May 24

A couple of incidents over 5 years, is still significant for anyone on the receiving end of an attack.

With the exemption of that gun incident a few years ago, we don’t really have a significant security problem at Canberra Airport either. I expect most Canberrans fly more relaxed, with scanning and safety procedures at the airport.

Comparing walking down the street minding your own business and going through airport security is about the longest bow you could possibly draw.

GrumpyGrandpa2:52 pm 17 May 24

With the influence of social media and how quickly tensions can rise, I’m happy for police to have extra powers whether that be on our streets or our airports.

Yeah, I’m not in favour of the government’s relaxed attitude to drugs either.

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