1 November 2021

What was our police force up to during COVID-19 lockdown?

| Lottie Twyford
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Police officer patrolling ACT/NSW border

A COVID-19 task force was set up to manage compliance with stay-at-home orders during the ACT’s COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

The arrival of the COVID-19 Delta variant in the ACT was a “game-changer” for policing, Acting Chief Police Officer Peter Crozier told a budget estimates hearing on Wednesday, 27 October.

It was recently revealed that major operations into organised crime and fraud had to be shelved so police officers could conduct COVID-19 duties such as door knocking and border compliance.

At the height of lockdown, more than 110 police officers were diverted into these teams, although Assistant Commissioner Crozier said all officers had a responsibility for ensuring COVID-19 compliance.

More than 600 directions to leave the ACT were issued throughout lockdown.

During the more than two months of lockdown, ACT Policing received around 2500 calls about suspected breaches of public health orders, although only six arrests were made.

Much work focused on the management of the ACT’s porous borders, with more than 50,000 traffic stops undertaken during the course of lockdown.

Police officers conducting border checks on highway

Border compliance checks kept police busy during COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Compliance checks on businesses and citizens also kept the ACT’s police officers busy. They conducted more than 6000 personal compliance checks, and in excess of 2300 business compliance checks.

Seventy four public health infringements were issued; 122 cautions for breaches of health directions were issued; and 126 move-on directions we issued.

Assistant Commissioner Crozier told the committee that two years of COVID-19 had tested officers’ “resilience, professionalism and dedication in new ways”, but he thanked Canberrans for their community-minded spirit.

“At all times, our strategy has reflected an ‘engage, educate and enforce approach’ in line with a broader ACT Government COVID-19 response,” he said.

Assistant Commissioner Crozier said police “shifted to a strong enforcement posture only when it was warranted”.

“It has been pleasing that for the most part, our ACT community has followed the restrictions, and understood and accepted their compliance requirements after conversations with police,” he said.

The majority of arrests made for COVID-19 breaches were in conjunction with arrests for more serious crimes.

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Assistant Commissioner Crozier noted the priority for ACT Policing is always the “safety and security of the community and workforce” and this had only become more important since March 2020.

A COVID-19 task force had first been first established in the ACT in July 2020 to “provide a centralised and coordinated response to both business continuity and enforcement action”.

Australian Federal Police Association (AFPA) president Alex Caruana had previously estimated around 60 officers had been diverted from their usual teams to this task force.

Mr Caruana said while the AFPA is supportive of the need for COVID-19 compliance checks and activities, he acknowledged the police force doesn’t have the workforce capacity to support both these and usual activities.

“It’s the investigations which take longer that are being stood down,” he said.

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Assistant Commissioner Crozier noted that while police resources did have to be diverted to COVID-19-related issues, it had been “the pressing need” and “we will need to continue to do that because our sense is that Delta has not gone away and the challenges that exist will continue”.

However, he said all changes to operations had been made after a risk-based assessment and “resources were always available to support and protect the community”.

Assistant Commissioner Crozier also made the point that some normal activities, such as patrolling large events or public gatherings, did not need to occur during lockdown which allowed for the opportunity to redirect these officers.

He stressed there would be a slow return towards “business as usual” and greater in-person engagement with the community.

It’s still unknown how many officers were forced into quarantine throughout the ACT’s COVID-19 lockdown. A spokesperson for ACT Policing had previously said this information could not be made public for operational reasons.

Border compliance activities ACT Policing undertook in conjunction with the Australian Defence Force have now come to an end.

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Well at least they didn’t don the jackboots like their Victorian counterparts

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