Armed NT Police at JJJ's One Night Stand, Alice Springs
A cop and her gun at JJJ's One Night Stand, Alice Springs

It used to be that the public face of policing in Australia was a burly constable with a big voice and a solid pair of boots for the kicking of arses. Not any more.

Walking around the Triple J One Night Stand gig at Alice Springs this past weekend I noticed that there were a number of highly visible uniformed NT Police officers inside the gig with their utility belts kitted out with the Glock 22 .40 calibre sidearm, pepper spray and Tazers.

Triple J’s One Night Stand in Alice Springs was run as alcohol-free gig inside a secure, fenced football oval and where the punters were subject to, as Triple J’s gig website tells us:

6. No Weapons of any type are permitted on site and any person in possession of such articles may be refused entry or ejected.

8. triple j and its security personnel may conduct security and or bag searches to ensure the safety of persons at the Event.

9. Illegal substances are strictly prohibited from the Event.

In order to enforce these policies Triple J had a heavy (non-Police) security contingent inside the venue and at the gates, where bag-searches and metal detector scans were in use.

The NT Police also had a strong presence, with several divvy vans and roving motorcycle patrols conducting “stop and search” operations outside the gig, plainclothes and officers and a drug sniffer-dog team on patrol in addition to the uniformed patrols. The Police had expected up to ten thousand people at the gig – far in excess of the estimated four to six thousand or so that actually turned up on the night.

The local Watch Commander reported 64 people being taken into custody for intoxication in and around Alice Springs on the night of the gig. But these are not arrests in the true sense of the word but “protective custody”.

Watch Commander Paula Dooley said 64 people were taken into custody on Saturday night. “There were no major problems and overall the behaviour was quite good,” she said. “People were moved on for loitering in the area and being intoxicated.”

This was confirmed by local NT Police Superintendent Sean Parnell who told Alice Brennan on ABC Radio783 in Alice Springs this morning that there were no incidents and only one arrest for the whole night for disorderly behaviour and possession of LSD.

I understand that the NT Police General Orders require that Police officers carry their sidearms at all times while on patrol.

But maybe it is time to ask if this is this really necessary, particularly in circumstances where the public are in a strictly controlled venue, are there to have fun and there is a low likelihood of any anti-social or violent behaviour or of any threat to life, limb or property.

The most ridiculous recent example I’ve seen of this policy or practice was the sight of at least six fully-armed NT Police at the opening of the new Yuendumu swimming pool in October 2008. As I’ve noted here before, this was a day of great celebration in the small community of Yuendumu that had worked long and hard to find the money to build the pool.

On the day there were hundreds of kids, adults, a bevy of politicians and local worthies all having fun, getting wet and having a very relaxed day out. At the time I asked the local Sergeant why he was fully-armed at a community event where the risk of any violence or anti-social behaviour was minimal. His response was firstly to be surprised at the idea that he shouldn’t be armed at all times, and secondly to defer to NT Police policy and General Orders.

We don’t talk much about the role of fully-armed police much these days – but maybe it is time to have a closer look at whether the presence of deadly weapons is necessary at community events where there is no – or little – risk of violent conduct or any threat to life.

I understand that in some other Australian jurisdictions the carriage of sidearms on general duties patrols is the norm but that carrying a sidearm at events where there are large numbers of the public engaged in peaceful activities (music gigs, community days, school fetes etc) is an operational decision made at the local level.

I’ve not been able to find a lot of research or comment on this matter but one valuable piece of research is a 1996 paper written by Rick Sarre of the University of South Australia titled “Firearms Carriage by Police in Australia: Policies and Issues” that examines many of the issues arising from the carriage of side and long-arms by Police, including the shift from a British model (where the default position was, or is, that Police did not usually carry sidearms) to the American position (where Police are always armed).

Sarre also considers these issues in his 1996 conference presentation: The Public, the Police and Australian Gun Policy” where he notes some of the issues that cloud our consideration of cops and guns:

In the last two decades there have been major shifts in the firearms policies of Australia’s eight police jurisdictions. The moves amongst Australia’s 35 000 serving police officers from the deployment of the baton to the covered pistol, and then to the widespread carriage of the exposed revolver, have occurred more by a process of incremental accretion, with tacit yet popular public acquiescence, than as a result of a careful series of decisions following public debate. Harding’s note in 1970 (1970, p 14) that the New South Wales Police Force (as it was then known) was the only force that was habitually armed has become an anachronism, indicating how much things have changed elsewhere in Australia. While the details of these changes vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, there has been a clear trend towards greater reliance by police on firearms in their day to day operations.

Both in the minds of large sections of the general public, and amongst many police officers themselves, there exists an unchallenged axiom that the more firearms are deployed by police the greater the effectiveness of policing. That axiom has been seriously challenged by recent events in Victoria but it has not disappeared. There is still a very strong belief that, despite the risks to police themselves by carrying their firearms, and despite the risks to the wider community, firearms are a necessary evil, and their carriage is to be preferred rather than rejected. The belief is that if there is a chance that wrong-doers will be carrying firearms, then the police ought to be prepared and able to match them. It is purely a belief. There is little evidence.

Sarre notes the personal and philosophical tangle that cops and guns evoke (remembering that he was writing post-Port Arthur massacre):

Let me declare a bias again. I would favour any policy that places clear restrictions on police (public and private) possession of a firearm. My view is that police carriage of guns encourages three things that may work against the common weal:

* an alienation of the police from the community they serve by enhancing police power and thereby frustrating the task of community policing (Sarre 1996a, p.36)

* a belief that a weapon-based response is an effective way of resolving conflict

* a view that the most threatening violence in our community is random and unpredictable when, for the most part, that is not the case.

So, what do you think – should our cops go to the school fete with a sidearm on a utility belt festooned with anti-personnel equipment?

We have a new Police Commissioner now with the recent appointment of John McRoberts to that post. He has made a few courageous decisions in his short time in office to date that have shaken up some of the more entrenched poor attitudes and approaches in the NT Police. Maybe he could have a look at this issue – he might make some enemies within the Police, but I think he’d make a lot more friends in the community.