19 December 2023

Time to prioritise Canberra's policing future, says Irma Palasics's grandson

| John Mikita
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John Mikita has been involved in the investigation into Irma Palasics’s murder over the decades. Photo: Supplied, Albert McKnight.

On 8 December, ACT Police announced the arrest of a second suspect relating to the home invasion and murder of my grandmother, Irma Palasics, and the violent bashing of my grandfather, Gregor.

Living for so long with murderers at large and the insecurity of the unknown has taken a large toll on our lives. This news brings relief and the hope of closure after 24 years of waiting for answers.

As a result, I’ve been trying to understand the ACT Policing model and why funding, especially for unsolved crimes, is far from a priority.

I reached out to organisations including the Australian Federal Police Association (AFPA). What I heard not only shocked me but made me realise that the safety of every Canberran is of serious concern.

Everyone agrees police do a phenomenal job with limited resources. However, we can’t expect them to be superheroes forever: they can’t work around the clock doing back-to-back shifts. The future of our city’s policing really needs a significant rethink and proper allocation of resources.

The current arrangement with the AFP provides ratepayers more value than we realise. We access behind-the-scenes services such as DNA testing, unsolved homicides, cyber policing, explosives experts, and more. Our own force would be unable to match the wide-ranging capabilities provided by the AFP through the Commonwealth.

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The next time the ACT Government-AFP contract is up for renewal, it might be better to focus on activities and outcomes. These indicators could, in part, be based on high visibility policing like random breath tests (rarely seen in Canberra these days) through to area patrols.

We could prioritise crime prevention and community policing. By having key performance indicators prioritising safety and community values, we can ensure this contract works for us.

According to the 2022 Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services, the ACT Government spent $452.67 per person on policing. The national average was $574.57. Based on 456,000 residents as of June 2022, for the ACT to have just the national average, we need an additional $56 million in police funding.

Earlier this year, the ACT Government announced 120 new officers over five years. This is a start, but not enough.

More must be done to retain our current police so that we can build the workforce, not just replace them. Too many officers leave ACT Policing for interstate or the Commonwealth. We’ll struggle with recruitment after the NSW Government recently announced generous incentives.

According to the AFPA, an additional 250 officers are needed. With stretched community and health services, police are being called on as social workers and bogged down with paperwork.

Police numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. The infamous city watchhouse is far from fit for purpose. It’s rife with leaks and broken toilets, meaning officers need to play cell chess with detainees to find a safe environment for them.

I’m advised it’s not uncommon on a Friday or Saturday night for only one sergeant and three other staff to look after 100 detainees. How can this be safe?

And with minimal staff, offenders are not always fingerprinted, and if charged, their DNA or biometrics are often not taken.

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This begs the question: how many suspects in unsolved crimes are slipping through the cracks because the DNA isn’t being gathered?

The state of the Gungahlin Police Station is a disgrace. Gungahlin recently lost officers due to a reallocation across the rest of the ACT. Officers get changed in a demountable and a new station is years away. Staff numbers are well below the national level, with just one police car on call for the whole of Gungahlin.

Late night hooning and drag racing are becoming bigger problems, and Canberra has the highest rate of shoplifting in the country. Supermarkets don’t call the police because they know no one will come. The deficiencies go on and on.

How did we get here? How has the state of policing and policing infrastructure been allowed to slip so far? Why hasn’t policing been prioritised in the ACT? The ACT Government must be held accountable.

Underinvestment in police leads to increased crime rates, erosion of public trust and confidence, an increase in organised crime and gang activity, an impact on economic development and investment, social unrest and distrust, and an impact on vulnerable members of the community.

We need a police force to give us comfort, confidence and freedom to make the most of our wonderful city. We need a police force that protects us and makes Canberra an inviting and safe place. We need to properly resource the police so they are there when we need them. And, as a community, we need to demand a safer future for Canberra.

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I agree John Mikita, there are problems within ACT Policing. Maybe your reasoned words and lobbying will lead to some positive changes.

The ACT needs its own independent police force. ACT Police merged with the Commonwealth Police in 1979 to form the AFP. The AFP has had portfolio responsibilities for it ever since. The NT and Tasmania, both comparatively sized jurisdictions, have their own independent police forces. The ACT Government paid the AFP around $202m last year to provide policing services to the Territory through ACT Policing. The current agreement is set to expire in 2026.

A key recommendation from a 2020 Assembly committee report into ACT policing recommended the need for our city to have its own police force. Surprisingly, the report stated that the minister for policing has little day to day oversight of the operations of ACT policing and this makes ministerial responsibility in this context complex, possibly near impossible.

Current laws exempt ACT police from the ACT’s Integrity Commission. The Integrity Commission cannot currently investigate ACT Policing matters as the agency falls under federal jurisdiction. This situation and lack of accountability does not provide proper legal oversight of our police that ACT residents would expect.

In the past 12 months we have seen the government and leading members of the legal fraternity questioning the ethical standards of some of our police and its leadership. Criticisms include senior police officers lacking knowledge and training, entrenched police sexism and bullying, failing victims of sexual assault, leaking of confidential information to the press in a high-profile rape case, a lack of transparency in internal investigations and rewarding of bad behaviour.

Recently a police officer was found to have perjured himself in a high-profile court case. Questions were raised as to his past heavy handed and aggressive tactics and his suitability as a police officer. This led to an internal police investigation with a senior Canberra lawyer claiming little chance of its findings ever being made public!

Unfortunately, policing is simply not a priority for the ACT Government. The Police are poorly paid for what they do. Think of your worst day in terms of dealing with people – that’s their day every day. Add to this the impact on morale of police arresting and charging people who are already out on bail. A lack of policing experience is also an issue, with relatively inexperienced officers supervising and training other police officers. No wonder retaing police is an issue. The ACT Government needs to do a lot better.

Stephen Ellis6:03 am 21 Dec 23

We have a Greens-Labor coalition government. The Greens support the defunding of police. We should not, therefore, be surprised that there is chronic underfunding of critical policing services.

Can’t have a tram AND policing…!

Having 150 additional Police over 5 years does not even cover natural attrition rates. ACT Policing are the lowest paid compared to all other jurisdictions and residents of the ACT have the lowest per capita Police numbers also of any other jurisdiction. When was the last time you saw a general duties or traffic vehicle patrolling the roads.

“Staff numbers are well below the national level, with just one police car on call for the whole of Gungahlin.”

Seriously? Only one police car for 90,000 people in Gungahlin?! That is despicable!

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