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'Unreasonable, unjust, oppressive': how a police program targeted Indigenous kids

“Unreasonable, unjust, oppressive or improperly discriminatory in its effect on children and young people.”

That’s how the Law Enforcement Conduction Commission (LECC) described a police program that aims to target likely offenders before they commit crimes.

It’s a program that allowed police to make home visits at all hours, and stop and search people in the street.

Yesterday, the commission released its damning final report after a five-year investigation.

Here’s what it found.

Read more: 'Too much money is spent on jails and policing': what Aboriginal communities told us about funding justice reinvestment to keep people out of prison

Report identifies unlawful practices

The program in question is the Suspect Targeted Management Plan, implemented by NSW Police.

It’s a pre-emptive policing program that selects and then targets children and adults who police predict may commit crimes in the future.

The rationale behind the policy is to deter recidivists.

Once placed on the plan, police “disrupt” people’s everyday lives, through questioning, stop and search, and home visits – sometimes at all hours and even multiple times a week or even a day.

The Law Enforcement Conduct Commission found some of this conduct to be unlawful, possibly even “serious misconduct”.

While the plan was introduced in 2000, the then secret “black list” only came to public attention in 2017 with my research (coauthored with Camilla Pandolfini), in partnership with Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Youth Justice Coalition.

The commission agreed with our recommendation that there were grounds to investigate the police for potential agency maladministration.

The commission’s investigation, called “Operation Tepito”, has been ongoing since 2018.

Its interim 2020 report was scathing of police.

It recommended further reform of the revised management plan through new policy guidelines and training.

The commission urged police to engage with young people with “positive interactions” and reduce coercive ones.

The final report reviewed the operation of the plan for children between November 2020 and February 2022.

The commission concluded that police use of the management plan was an “agency maladministration” but did not make formal findings. This is because NSW Police abandoned the plan before the report was released.

First Nations children disproportionately targeted

Of the recommendations the commission made in 2020, NSW Police failed to successfully implement any of them.

Police overwhelmingly still subjected young people to intrusive, disruptive strategies. Some of these, such as home visits and searches, were unlawful.

There was little evidence of “positive interactions”, nor of support referrals.

Read more: The NT's tough-on-crime approach won't reduce youth offending. This is what we know works

First Nations young people were disproportionately targeted.

In 2022, First Nations people made up 48% of all young people on the plan.

This was an increase on the 42% reported in the 2020 interim report.

Crucially, the commission found that:

The NSW Police Force did not undertake any analysis to try to determine the reasons for this and did not take steps to reduce this over-representation.

First Nations young people are overpoliced, overcharged and overincarcerated.

If you then use the same data to decide who is “risky” and deserving of intensified police harassment, it only reinforces the cycle of criminalisation.

The Commission also found other administrative issues, including:

  • varied quality in intelligence assessments

  • unclear justifications for putting people on the plan

  • inflation of how some scores were calculated

  • poor record-keeping

  • inadequate consideration of complex needs or the alternatives to placing a young person on the Suspect Targeting Management Plan.

Read more: Raising the age of criminal responsibility is only a first step. First Nations kids need cultural solutions

A plan at odds with Closing the Gap

The fact NSW Police didn’t implement any of the 2020 recommendations or reduce the over-representation shows the plan was never safe for First Nations young people in the first place.

Indeed, the management plan did precisely what it was designed to do: incapacitate and disrupt.

No amount of training or improvements to policy could remedy the extensive harms for First Nations young people put on the plan.

It was fundamentally a punitive surveillance approach, which made police the first responders for First Nations young people.

Aboriginal children need culturally appropriate, therapeutic, trauma-informed services run by Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.

They also need safe distance from police.

The Suspect Targeting Management Plan was always at odds with the NSW government’s commitment to divert First Nations people from the criminal justice system.

In its Closing the Gap Implementation Plan, all early interventions to support young people need to be community designed and driven.

There should also be health, housing and education support.

A community development approach

NSW Police has dropped the Suspect Targeting Management Plan for people under 18 and will soon scrap it entirely.

Police are now developing a replacement approach. Will they take the lead from communities?

The Yuwaya Ngarra-li community-led partnership in Walgett is one example of how holistic diversion programs can work.

Another is Just Reinvest in Bourke, Kempsey and Moree.

The UTS Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education has developed ideas around Aboriginal self-determination in youth justice that could shape guiding principles.

Police are the wrong people for providing Indigenous young people with non-coercive, therapeutic support.

Community alternatives to state policing are real and powerful.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission did not make formal findings of agency maladministration because NSW Police abandoned the Suspect Targeted Management Plan for children before the report was released. The article previously did not include this context.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Vicki Sentas, UNSW Sydney.

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Vicki Sentas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.