The introduction of government measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 significantly impacted the ability of law enforcement to carry out its role, as additional responsibilities placed on Commonwealth, state and territory police forces created considerable operational challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic measures also placed considerable pressure on the day-to-day lives of Australians. Some members of the public questioned containment measures and a number of 'anti-lockdown' protests were sparked as a result. At the same time, there were calls for action to address what some called the 'shadow pandemic' of domestic violence, as restrictions increased women's vulnerability to all forms of violence and abuse, and impacted their ability to seek support.
This chapter explores the pressures experienced by law enforcement and the community as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures introduced to contain it.
Impacts on operational policing
Throughout the pandemic, Commonwealth, state and territory police maintained their core activities and responsibilities, while expanding their range of duties to assist in containing the virus. Extended operational duties such as enforcing social distancing requirements, operating border checkpoints, and managing lockdowns and hotel quarantine, required police forces to reallocate personnel and balance their resources between new responsibilities and regular service demands.
Understandably, the requirement to assist with the emerging crisis stretched law enforcement resources and impacted their capacity to attend to other operational policing matters.
To implement COVID-19 containment measures, police forces faced considerable resourcing pressures, mainly as policing activities occurred across extensive geographical locations.
A number of inquiry participants informed the committee of the resourcing pressures police had experienced as a result of redirected operational resources to assist with the enforcement of health and social distancing directives. The Western Australia (WA) Police Force, for example, stated that the 'inability to devolve these functions…adversely impacted on organisational capacity and delivery [of] policing services'.
The Northern Territory (NT) Police Force advised that it could not have resourced the border and biosecurity checkpoints without assistance from the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Securing assistance from these Commonwealth bodies remains a long-term concern for the NT Police Force.
Additionally, the Police Federation of Australia (Police Federation) pointed to distinct resourcing issues when carrying out COVID-19 duties in metropolitan areas when compared to regional areas, particularly in larger states and territories. For example, police in Queensland guarded hotels in Brisbane, Cairns, the Gold Coast and Townsville and it was noted fatigue was an issue for regional and remote areas as police were unable to leave some areas for several months.
The Police Federation also noted that enforcing some containment measures placed new financial pressures on police forces. For example, it noted that ‘the Northern Territory Police reported in July 2020 that it was costing $2 million a month to patrol the [territory's] borders and ensure people comply with COVID-19 restrictions'.
Police surge capacity
To take the burden off police forces during emergencies, some inquiry participants suggested that a National Police Reserve Force be established. Dr John Coyne and Ms Leanne Close, providing evidence in a private capacity, explained that additional police surge capacity would limit the need to redeploy highly trained and experienced law enforcement officers from core duties.
Dr Coyne and Ms Close proposed that a National Police Reserve Force be established similar to the Defence Reserves model. They suggested that the police reserve be made available to state, territory and federal authorities under established rules and regulations. The reservists could be part-time or casual and regularly trained each year in a range of law enforcement activities 'within the context of the already extensive accountability and integrity frameworks'.
Dr Coyne and Ms Close pointed out that the redeployment of the military to provide surge capacity in a crisis raised questions regarding the lack of legislative support for their actions, the absence of domestic response training, and their ongoing availability in emergencies. For this reason, they argued that a police surge capacity would be preferable in such situations.
However, Mr Weber, Chief Executive Officer of the Police Federation, expressed some caution in regard to the proposal to establish a national police reserve force. He suggested that the proposal has merit, but advised it would need appropriate standards to protect the model’s reputation, the broader police force and the community:
The proposal has some merit, but we're quite wary…With a reserve force we'd want to make sure that there are appropriate standards, checks and balances…You just highlighted the reputation of police and how they deal with the community. We don't want to jeopardise that in any way…We just need to make sure that they have the appropriate skills, checks and balances so that they don't jeopardise themselves, other police or the community.
The committee heard that the AFP had set up an AFP Reserves model to support frontline operations, fill operational gaps in peak demand periods, and respond to similar future emergency scenarios.
Mr Brett Pointing, Deputy Commissioner of Operations from the AFP, explained that it was important for the organisation to consider how to provide surge capacity when required, and that the development of the AFP Reserve 'emerged as a very good solution to provide that'. The model would initially comprise retired and former employees with an anticipated target of 200 reserves by the end of 2020. He advised that the AFP Reserves model will go through a review process, in consultation with appropriate stakeholders, to consider the model's merits and if it could be expanded.
The committee appreciates the speed with which law enforcement agencies have balanced their resources and efforts to undertake both COVID-19 related duties and core policing work during the pandemic. The committee is cognisant that the primary role of ensuring compliance with public health directions has significantly impacted law enforcement's resources.
The committee supports government, state and territory police forces and police representative bodies, in exploring potential strategies and arrangements for sharing police workforces nationally, to increase their capacity and capability in an emergency.
The committee believes the proposal for a National Police Reserve Force has merit and could be a solution for the rapid expansion of police forces during a national emergency. However, research needs to be undertaken to ascertain if the proposal is viable. There are numerous factors to be considered: the states and territories' role, amendment of legislative and policy frameworks, sufficient funding, ability to attract and retain recruits, collective skill and capability development, amongst other things.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with Commonwealth, state and territory law enforcement and police representative bodies, explore the proposal to establish a National Police Reserve Force to be utilised during national emergencies, with appropriate standards of operation and training to ensure community acceptance.
Assaults on police officers
The Police Federation raised concerns regarding officer safety while policing communities during the pandemic. The Police Federation reported that the pandemic has 'increased the risk of police offers being assaulted on the job'. They referred to data by the WA Police Union which showed 198 incidents of their police officers being assaulted in the first six months of 2020. This is 56.3 per cent higher than the average of the previous three years. Nearly one-quarter of the officers assaulted had been spat on.
The Police Federation noted there had been reports of people intentionally coughing, spitting and sneezing on police, health workers and other first responders. They stated that this behaviour is highly concerning, particularly when offenders could be carrying a communicable disease such as
The Police Federation stressed that these behaviours should be deemed a criminal offence and that some jurisdictions have acted to introduce specific offences for people who intentionally spit or cough on workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Police Federation argued that these offensive acts should be deemed a criminal offence regardless of whether it is during a pandemic.
In addition, the Police Federation noted that several jurisdictions have provisions for offenders to be mandatorily tested for a communicable disease if they knowingly expose an officer to the risk of acquiring that disease. These provisions would also cover the act of biting or spitting blood. However, it is unclear whether the provisions would allow for offenders who deliberately cough, spit or sneeze on a police officer to be tested.
The Police Federation recommended that all jurisdictions strengthen penalties for those that deliberately expose a police officer or first respondent to a serious virus by coughing, spitting or similar. At the public hearing, Mr Weber indicated he would like to see a national approach to addressing the issue through the Criminal Code.
The committee is deeply concerned by reports of these acts perpetrated against police and other frontline workers while carrying out their duties, which are potentially exposing workers to COVID-19 and other diseases.
The committee is aware that some states have introduced specific offences for people who intentionally spit or cough on workers during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, the committee understands that the deliberate transmission of COVID-19 is already an offence under general criminal law provisions in each state and territory.
Nevertheless, the committee is supportive of the Commonwealth, state and territory governments exploring if the current provisions in the Criminal Code adequately protect law enforcement officers from intentional acts of coughing, spitting or sneezing. The committee also encourages Commonwealth, state and territory jurisdictions to work together to ensure that provisions exist for offenders to be mandatorily tested for a communicable disease if they knowingly expose an officer to the risk of acquiring that disease.
The committee recommends that Commonwealth and state and territory governments jointly undertake to review and ensure adequate provisions exist to enable offenders to be mandatorily tested if they knowingly expose a law enforcement officer to a communicable disease through the act of biting and spitting.
Increased rates of domestic and family violence
While quarantining, social distancing and restrictions on movement and gatherings effectively protect individuals from spreading or contracting COVID-19, staying home is not a safe option for everyone. Submitters noted that the pressures from the pandemic had exacerbated domestic and family violence.
A survey of 15,000 women by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) found that the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with the onset and escalation of violence or coercive control. While many women sought help from the police, government and other support services, many others were unable to because of safety concerns. This finding is consistent with concerns raised by domestic and family violence support services who found it difficult to engage with women because of social distancing requirements. The AIC noted it could also help explain why the number of formal domestic violence reports to police did not increase during the early stages of the pandemic.
Further analysis from the AIC survey identified significant stressors, including higher levels of financial stress, and less contact with family and friends during the pandemic, had increased the likelihood of violence and abuse. This suggests that COVID-19 restrictions, such as lockdowns and social distancing requirements, hindered social contact and worsened feelings of social isolation for those experiencing domestic violence or coercive control.
Moreover, the AIC found that particular groups of women were more likely to experience violence and/or coercive control, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women from non-English speaking backgrounds, women with a restrictive long-term health condition, pregnant women and women with children.
The WA Police Force anticipates a large spike in refuge demand in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, and a heightened risk of mental health problems and the use of alcohol and other drugs.
Concerns were also raised about family and domestic violence impacting regional and remote communities. The WA Police Force noted that a central triage model is being trialled to assist the Kimberley Family and Domestic Violence Response Team in managing the increased volume and complexity of reports during the pandemic.
The Police Federation recommended the committee engage with the AIC and Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency (ANZPAA) to assist with an in-depth analysis of crime trends, particularly concerning family and domestic violence arising from the pandemic. At the public hearing,
Mr Scott Weber, Chief Executive Officer of the Police Federation, spoke further on what the in-depth analysis could provide, considering the impact the pandemic has had:
The research would be very valuable to highlight hotspots, and also as an educational tool. It could look at the social and economic issues. Again, this will be ongoing not only with the alcohol and the restrictions that are still occurring in some of the states, but also the loss of jobs and the financial pressures.
The committee is gravely concerned by reports that domestic and family violence has escalated during the pandemic. The committee acknowledges the pandemic has created conditions that have exacerbated personal stressors and that support services were impacted by restrictions that added further complexities to assist those in need.
The committee acknowledges that there are several Commonwealth Government initiatives that respond to this 'shadow pandemic' of domestic violence, such as providing funding to family violence phone counselling services. The committee is also aware that the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs inquired into family, domestic and sexual violence and presented its final report on 31 March 2021. The report made 88 wide-ranging recommendations and will inform the next National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.
The committee is supportive of an AIC and ANZPAA collaboration to undertake an in-depth analysis of domestic and family violence. The committee is conscious that police officers are often the first responders to domestic violence incidents and perform a vital role.
The committee recommends that the Australian Institute of Criminology and Australian New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency undertake an analysis of domestic and family violence, and consider the escalation of domestic violence during the pandemic, best practice training requirements for police first responders, and culturally appropriate responses to First Nations and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities.
Infringement of civil liberties
The committee queried whether the extraordinary control measures introduced by governments to combat the spread of the virus contravene the civil liberties of Australians. Similar concerns were raised in the media and by members of the public, particularly regarding lockdowns in Victoria and police tactics used to enforce public health directions.
The stage 4 restrictions in Melbourne sparked a number of anti-lockdown and freedom protests which resulted in clashes with police. The committee received evidence from members of the public that discussed concerns about the COVID-19 restrictions, and the tactics used by Victoria Police to enforce them, particularly during lockdown protests. Eleven submissions contained allegations of unreasonable practices towards protestors, questioned the Victoria Police's commitment to upholding human rights and suggested officers failed to comply with health directives, such as social distancing requirements.
In response to allegations of unreasonable practices, Victoria Police acknowledged that the alleged incidents occurred in the context of an unprecedented public health emergency during periods where legislated directions were in place to contain and slow the spread of COVID-19. However, they indicated their support for members of the public in their right to make complaints against Victoria Police directly or to the Independent Board-based Anti-corruption Commission.
Ms Pauline Wright, President of the Law Council, argued that Australians today are experiencing a curtailing of their civil liberties. However, many accept this under the circumstances of the pandemic and as long as the restrictions are eventually lifted:
Our civil liberties are being curtailed in a way that I think Australians have never seen, at least in living memory. I think that Australians are, to a degree, content with that, provided that it doesn't outlast the crisis. That social compact of acceptance of these measures will not remain if those powers are seen to being abused or are staying in place beyond the crisis.
An unexpected consequence of law enforcement's involvement in containing the pandemic and enforcing COVID-19 restrictions could be the potential for the loss of its social license with the community. This concern is discussed further below.
The social license of law enforcement
Law enforcement's social license to operate relies on community trust and confidence. It allows police to exercise discretion and supports their right to use force in certain circumstances. However, this social license is likely to be challenged as a result of enforcing COVID-19 restrictions.
The Police Federation advised that there has been a very high standard of policing throughout the pandemic, but suggested several factors have contributed to negative community perceptions of police. The enforcement of unpopular laws and the negative portrayal of police interventions in the media have impacted on community perceptions of police. The Police Federation warned that negative views can remain long after significant incidents have passed.
Ms Wright advised that the social license between the police and the public will be questioned, or come under threat, if the public perceive that a law enforcement response is out of proportion to the risk posed. It is crucial to uphold the institutional reputation of law enforcement in the eyes of the public:
[A]s long as proper discretion is used, and the authorities and those agencies are not abusing their extraordinary powers, that social compact will remain. But where people see them being abused, overstepped or used without exercising the appropriate discretions, or used to target particular demographic groups or vulnerable groups improperly or unfairly, then that social compact will break down.
Mr Richard Wilson SC, co-director of the National Criminal Law Committee within the Law Council of Australia, advised that discretionary powers can be applied judiciously to avoid long-term damage to law enforcement's social license. While acknowledging that the Victorian COVID-19 situation is quite different, Mr Wilson mentioned the 'softer' approach taken by Australian Capital Territory Policing was successful in the circumstances:
[H]aving hard enforcement options [don't] always mean that police have to behave in a hard, confrontational way. As I understand it, the police in the Australian Capital Territory have been taking a softer and more educational approach, with warnings and cautions and explaining things to people rather than chasing them down, arresting them or giving them fines and so on. There can be a proportionate response.
The Law Council also emphasised that maintaining the institutional reputation of law enforcement during the pandemic is critical to protect against long-term impacts on its social license with the public.
Over the course of a few months in 2020, criminal activity, particularly involving organised crime groups (OCGs), substantially changed in response to the pandemic. Initial observations of criminal behaviour showed that while COVID-19 had a short-term disruptive effect, OCGs and malicious actors were able to quickly adapt to the new social and economic environment, demonstrating their flexibility and resilience. While government restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 impacted some crime types, other crimes such as scams, domestic violence and child sexual exploitation rose dramatically. The growth of these crime types during the pandemic is very concerning for the committee.
Law enforcement officers have worked hard during the pandemic, and had a significant role in keeping the public safe by enforcing public health orders, often in trying circumstances. The federal and state governments should ensure that enforcing COVID-19 rules over the long-term does not negatively impact on law enforcement's reputation and social licence.
Overall, the committee considers there are a number of lessons to be learnt from the early stages of the pandemic. The committee encourages the federal government to further consider law enforcement's capability and capacity to deliver critical services during emergencies that are similar in impact and scale to the COVID-19 pandemic.