The number of operational police in the ACT is proportionately the lowest in the country and the Territory spends the least on policing, according to the latest Report on Government Services from the Productivity Commission.
The police union has seized on the figures to press its claim for more officers in the ACT as a growing community continues to call for a greater police presence in its streets and neighbourhoods, particularly in new areas such as Gungahlin and the Molonglo Valley.
The ACT Government contracts the Territory’s police service from the Australian Federal Police.
Police spending has varied in recent years. In 2020-21, total recurrent spending was $188.6 million, the lowest in the country, up from $184.7 million the previous year, which was a decrease on the 2018-19 figure of $186.8 million.
The number of operational police per 100,000 people in 2021 was the lowest in the country (219), while the figure for non-operational staff was the fourth-highest (31), more than NSW, Victoria and Queensland and four higher than the national average.
There were 712 sworn officers, 235 civilian and other staff counted among 946 operational staff, while non-operational staff amounted to 15 sworn and 119 civilian and other staff.
The total number of non-operational and civilian staff amounted to 369, more than a third of the total workforce of 1081.
Staff numbers did increase on the previous year, but unsworn staff outpaced officers in the field. Total numbers increased by 82, but while 70 were unsworn, with only 16 sworn officers added.
These numbers could be seen as ACT Policing being bureaucracy heavy, but AFP Association national president Alex Caruana said the figures now included contractors, and the number of support staff was about right.
But Mr Caruana repeated calls for more spending on policing and more officers.
“It’s almost an embarrassment that we spend the least amount of money in Australia on policing in this jurisdiction and also have the lowest number of police officers per capita,” he said.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic had only aggravated the strain on police, with members unable to work due to contracting the virus or being a close contact.
This fatigue could have contributed to the surprise slump in satisfaction ratings, which fell below the national average.
The satisfaction rating puts the ACT service at the back of the pack in a key category.
Of those who had contact with police in the previous 12 months, only 77.6 per cent said they were satisfied with the interaction, the lowest rating in the country. WA had the highest at 84.6 per cent, while NSW had 82.9 per cent and the national average was 81.9 per cent.
This was the same as 2019-20 but down from 2018-19 when the rating was 80.2 per cent.
Mr Caruana said management was having to divert resources away from what it considered lower priority areas but that the community expects officers to respond to.
He said the ACT community had a transactional view of their services.
“I’m paying my tax, when I call for help – whether it be hoons in the street or a burglar in the home – I expect that police officer is going to available,” Mr Caruana said.
He added that a stretched and fatigued police service suffered more mental health issues, and COVID had exacerbated this.
“We’re literally sending people out with loaded guns and expecting them to work these massive amounts of hours, but we’re not giving them the opportunity, because of [low staff] numbers, to have the appropriate respite and recharge to go out there and serve the community,” he said.
He added that police would be the first to be criticised if something went wrong.
When it comes to perceptions of public safety, the ACT’s police are near the top of the tree, rating highly for when people are at home alone during the night, walking alone in the neighbourhood and travelling on public transport.
Police and Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman said the ACT Government has injected record funding into ACT Policing, including almost $34 million to help modernise its services.
“ACT Policing’s workforce continues to grow and welcome new members. Ninety-eight recruits graduated and have joined ACT Policing in the past financial year,” he said.
“The deployment of these new recruits is delivering on our commitment to grow police numbers across Canberra.”
Mr Gentleman said police numbers in the mainly metropolitan ACT could not be easily compared to other jurisdictions, which cover a much wider geographical area.