Brendan Behan’s old remark that there is “no situation so bad that the arrival of a policeman cannot make it worse” may need to be amended to suggest that there is no situation so confused that a policeman with an idea cannot make it impenetrable.
Cue the arrival of Victorian police supremo Simon Overland to the festival of biffo and stabbing currently passing for Melbourne nightlife. After a few incidents high-profile for their grotesque randomness — a bloke followed and stabbed at a Seven-Eleven for breaking up an earlier fight, someone strangled (non-fatally) outside a Hungry Jack’s — and continued clamour for action — Overland looked desperately around and announced that “police research” had established that the violence was down to “generation brat”, a new group of young people to whom “parents could not say no”.
Like the “university tests” that buttress the claims of skincare products, we haven’t had any specific citations for these studies proving that getting an X-Box makes you more likely to put a blade in someone, and in the history of moral panics about youth, it’s of the level of hysteria over jitterbugging riots. But it not only gets a police force with a history of indolent reactiveness off the hook, it allows interested parties — tabloid media, angry middle-aged and old people, the laura norder right — to feel an easy sense of moral superiority.
There is obviously something going in Melbourne, but what? Your correspondent must admit that, on returning to grey Gotham after a whiles [whiles] away, he was surprised by the level of aggro, in the CBD and the western ‘burbs. From far off, it seemed as if people were panicking about the simple fact that Melbourne was becoming a thoroughly modern city, with corresponding violence levels. Up close it seemed as if the city was punching, or stabbing, above its weight. The assumption is that there’s more violence than there once was. But is that the case?
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The statistics tell a complex story. Uniform crime stats have only been collected across Australia since the 90s, but juggling around earlier findings tells an interesting story. David Indermur’s 1996 paper (Violent crime in Australia: interpreting the trends) did indeed find a staggering rise in assaults, such as would confirm the worst tabloid fears. Only problem is Indermur’s findings are that assaults began to skyrocket in the early 70s, and the gain since then has been much less.
From 1973 to 1993, assaults* per 100,000 of the population rose from 20 to 120, a 500% increase – commencing around the time that young Simon Overland was nagging his parents for a junior nightstick and capsicum spray, and a Green Machine with a prisoner cage in the back.
By contrast, the subsequent rise in assault crimes has been insignificant. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology figures there were around 144,000 assaults in 1997, and around 176,000 in 2007 — most of that 20% rise accounted for by population increase.
Of course, as Indermur discusses, no-one really believes that the assault rate went up by 500% over two decades. Since the figures are based on police reports, it seems quite likely that changing ideas about what demands a police intervention has shaped the figures — i.e. in the 70s, a suburban pub fight would take place in the car park and no-one would think of calling the cops. Now it takes place in the city, outside a nightclub, and there’s no choice but for the police to be involved. Same fight, same sort of participants — aggro young men — different locale.
However, that does not change one significant fact — in the twentieth century there was a rise in social violence, from a low in the 1940s (possibly a partly false one — in wartime, assaults can be normalised, and homicides hidden more easily) with a steady rise through the 50s, and then — throughout the western world — a sharper uprise beginning in the mid-60s and levelling off in the mid-90s.
Is that statistical shape starting to ring any bells? Yes, crime rise follows the passage of the baby-boomers almost exactly — from the time they hit the age (15-16) when violent crime begins, to the age (mid-40s), when it finally starts to level off. Far from being a more violent generation, Gen Y, has contributed far less to the increase in social violence than their parents.
Over the past decade or so, the Victorian police have never disappointed us in disappointing us. The drug squad turned Melbourne into the speed capital of the world — using taxpayers’ money — in a joint venture with the bikies, corrupt and second-rate cops failed to address the gang wars when it was clear that something out of the ordinary was going on. Most recently, social policy has been set by Indian students (in whose debt we now are) who’ve forced the government and police to actually act on rising street crime in the western suburbs — by the simple expedient of filling the policing vacuum themselves, with railway station patrols.
The “generation brat” line makes good PR, but that’s all it is. The change in violent crime in Melbourne has complex causes (which I’ll touch on tomorrow), but there’s more chance of identifying it in social and geographical shifts, rather than spinning simple morality tales. For the moment Simon Overland is living proof of Behan’s Law. If he isn’t going to get serious about policing a hypermodern society, he should get out.
*This is non-s-xual assaults. S-xual assaults are a different category, responding to different social and legal changes.