Forging Links

By Sara Maher | 22 Nov 13

This article is part of our November-December focus on Cultural Shift. For more on this theme, click here.

By Sara Maher

The irony of immigration and settlement is that it can put enormous stress on families who come here looking for a better life. Settling into a new country can be very hard. Police can be part of the problem but also part of the answer – depending on how well trained, aware and conscientious they are.

In February of this year, just prior to being heard by the Federal court, Victoria Police settled a case of racial profiling bought against them by a group of young African-Australian men from the north-west region of Melbourne. As a condition of settlement Victoria Police agreed to review policies and training and consult with community. Five community forums occurred across Melbourne in August and September.

But then in June came the “mudfish” scandal; a dozen officers from Sunshine station were caught using stubby holders that mocked Africans.

Yet Victoria Police has poured huge resources into the office of Community Engagement. State-wide, it has evolved over the last ten years and oversees programs that focus on vulnerable sectors of the community, including gay and lesbian, elderly, mentally ill, youth and new and emerging communities.

Overseeing the program in Melbourne’s Southern metropolitan region is Inspector Ron Gardener, who says inappropriate behaviour by officers is taken very seriously. Even a hint of racism is not tolerated and is referred to the Professional Standards Command for investigation. Gardener is emphatic when he says, “we are one community”.

Sergeant Joey Herrech is Multicultural Liaison Officer (MLO) for Gardener’s region and is proud of the relationships the Community Engagement team have developed in the most culturally diverse area in Australia. Herrech believes staff at Dandenong station will not tolerate a racist. “Connection to the community is too valuable. For one bad egg to break it down would be catastrophic for us.”

Working alongside the MLOs are “unsworn” staff. Based in Dandenong, Endalkatchew Gage is a new and emerging community liaison officer. He is involved in training and policy, as well as daily outreach. Coming from a refugee background, he has been in his role since 2011. While Gage believes racism is a fact of life for Africans in Australia, he also says there is no inherent policy or group mentality of racial profiling within the police.

Community Engagement is heavily resourced and these men appear committed to it. Work done with new and emerging communities in Dandenong includes initiating reference groups with three of the most vulnerable communities. Chaired by Gardener, reference groups strive to address the needs of groups from Afghanistan, South Sudan, and New Zealand. These groups are markedly different from each other; yet similar in the difficulties they face settling into Australian society.

Afghani asylum seekers are overwhelmingly single men from the Hazara ethnic minority. The South Sudanese community is made up of multiple ethnic groups, each with their own distinct culture and language. As well as the indigenous Maori, many Pacific islands are represented in the New Zealand community: the majority being Samoan, Tongan and Cook Islanders.

New Zealanders are not eligible for Centrelink or any other form of government support for a period of two years. Young people from this group experience disproportionately high rates of interactions with police and involvement in the judicial system. According to Endal, New Zealanders are equal to Africans in being the most disadvantaged and marginalised in the south-east of Melbourne.

A program known as PILOT, run by police and volunteers, attempts to identify young people most at-risk. A decrease in complaints about young people on nights when PILOT is running is taken as a measure of its success.

MLO for the north-west metropolitan region, Senior Constable Richard Dove says perceptions of police are critical to the process of settling. He runs early intervention programs for the newly arrived who are often coming from countries that have military police and or police that are corrupt and to be avoided, where contact with them can make a problem bigger, not better. Dove educates new communities about the role of police in this country. He is involved in over 25 projects at any one time and participates in dozens of community events. Positive perceptions build confidence and settlement gets easier as confidence grows. Dove believes a positive connection to police means survival for new arrivals in Australia. In 2008, he initiated the Wyndam Sudanese Community Forum bringing together multiple services to address issues affecting South Sudanese settling in that area. The program was considered successful because the community members described their confidence growing and there were fewer complaints to police. The model was replicated in 2011 in Melton. Dove also has a strong relationship with the Burmese Karen community. They know him as the Karen policeman.

Gardener acknowledges the criticism Victoria Police has received over its cultural awareness training but adds they are primarily police and have to “keep it in balance”. But he also believes that lived experience is invaluable; some officers and unsworn staff come from a refugee background and a wide range of cultures, although Gardener says more are needed.

Leadership Training programs for young people, run in partnership with other agencies, happen two or three times a year and are unashamedly used to promote the role of police and to recruit. Thirty to forty young people attend each program.

Gaps were found to exist in the review of cultural training police receive during their careers. Online and in-person training, beginning at the end of this year, will be used to fill these gaps. A report on the five community forums will be available in December. Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture and other non-government agencies provide training for MLOs and unsworn staff.

MLO also “self-train” through personal interaction with new communities and Herrech believes this is the most useful way of learning about another culture. Police Academy recruits now receive training called “Policing within a Multicultural Context” and Abraham Mamer, a leader in the South Sudanese community has been asked by the Police Commissioner to mentor the training and recruitment of four new African officers. The community has welcomed this initiative and the number of applicants is high.

African officers and new cultural training may help to eradicate racist behaviour and practices in Victoria Police. Strong leadership and the work of the Community Engagement office seem essential in supporting shifts in attitude and perception of new communities within the police service itself.