Last weekend, Christie Aucamp-Aschutte and a group of friends dancing to the lights of Sydney’s Vivid son et lumière festival with an old boom box were approached by the police and told to ‘move along’ without being allowed to so much as finish their song. Their crime: honestly, no one knows.
Governments and public servants seem to think that deterring petty instances of “public disorder” (whatever that means) will reduce actual crimes like violence, theft and murder. In reality, they only make the problem worse while treading on our rights. This theory comes from the idea that an abandoned car with no damage will, in most cases, be left alone. But if someone breaks a window, then the vehicle is free game for stripping and demolishing. This is called Broken Window Theory and it inspired Rudi Giuliani’s crusade on petty crime as mayor of New York and has been mistakenly credited with the decrease in serious crime over the following decades. It’s a theory that easily devolves into the zealotry we see negatively impacting Sydneysiders.
Take the example of the many fines our police, parking inspectors and others, levy. These turn ordinary people into ATMs for the state apparatus while disproportionately hurting the poor. Economic decline drives crime in neighbourhoods, but zero tolerance on the part of police with harsh regressive fines, further impoverish people.
Cracking down on petty instances of “public disorder” makes every person a possible criminal.
This March, police set up temporary screens and began conducting strip searches in Sydney’s Central station. Normally, people approached by armed men telling them to strip call the police for protection. But in this case the police were the problem.
Drug sniffing dogs are wrong 74 per cent of the time, meaning three out of every four commuters pulled aside for humiliation in what can be deemed nothing less than a traumatizing experience, are innocent.
The NSW police department proudly stands by the motto, “Punishment Follows Close on Guilt.” But these days, it seems that guilt is no longer necessary for punishment. Individuals even receive the death penalty at the hands of trigger-ready cops.
People naturally distrust those whom they view as criminals. As the police begin turning commuters into criminals, they are firing shots against community unity by sowing seeds of distrust. When police treat you or someone you love like a criminal, you begin to distrust the police.
Trust both toward the people in ones community, and toward those charged with keeping law and order, creates unity in a community – unity which inspires individuals to take responsibility for the public space they occupy, and by doing, so reduces crime. Micromanaging cops who turn commuters into criminals inspire both fear and distrust of one’s neighbours as well as the fear that you could be the next target.
The NSW police force employs 20,667 officers and other officials and has an annual budget of $3.356 billion. Too many of those officers are spending their time enforcing what can hardly be defined as crime and neglecting actual issues.
It is harder to find and prosecute people who are actually trying to commit crimes. Finding a murderer takes more time than arresting a pothead. Addressing violent crime is more dangerous than sending non-violent dancers home.
Success for a police officer is measured by how many arrests they make and how much so- called crime they stop. Like any rational actor, they take the path of least resistance. We need to change our policies and incentivise police to do the job we hired them for: truly protecting our city.
The government needs to address real issues not perceived annoyances. If people are going to dance in the street, I would really like it to be to ABBA and not the Drake Christie was playing. But my personal taste should not ruin other people’s fun.
The cost of this over-regulation and excessive empowerment of the police is high. By delegating every confrontation to the police, we are killing spiders with dynamite. Personal responsibility, investment in our communities, and letting the poor keep their money instead of shaking them down for fines will keep Sydney safer than zealous over-policing ever could.
Emilie Dye is a Research Associate with the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.
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