Professor Chris Cunneen has a national and international reputation as a leading criminologist specializing in Indgenous people and the law, juvenile justice, restorative justice, policing, prison issues and human rights. He runs the Indigenous Law and Justice Hub at Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research at UTS.
In this second part of our talk with Professor Chris Cunneen we look to the contemporary dialogue around abolishing of policing as we know it today.
- Can you hear me up there? (guitar music playing) The terminology might be slightly different, but the basic problem were the same. - (speaking foreign language) and welcome to Jumbunna Talks. My name is Pauline Clague, and I wanna start by acknowledging the Gadigal, Darug and Gandangara peoples on whose land we made these podcasts. The hashtag of defunding the police became prevalent in the past couple of years with the George Floyd death in the USA, to the rise of the Black Lives Matter protest. And here in Australia, with the increased deaths in custody rates of indigenous men and women like Dungay and Dhu, and many others from our community. In this second part of our talk with Professor Cunneen, we look to the contemporary dialogue around abolishing of policing as we know it today. - I wanna start by addressing some of the issues that people raise to argue against defunding the police and to argue why we need the police. And one of the arguments that's put up there, is that police are really indispensable for our society because they have the abilities to solve crime and that they're highly trained, and that they're required to respond to dangerous situations. So I wanna address some of those issues. One thing that we do know, is that most of the calls, so 000 or 911 type calls are not to the police, are not about serious violent crime. They make up about 1% of the calls for assistance. 30%, one of the largest groups of calls are actually not related to criminal matters at all. And so I think it's important to recognize that, we have calls in relation to motor vehicle accidents, we have a wide range of calls, which they're calls for assistance but they're not about responding to serious or violent crime. I think that raises two questions, whether police are necessary for effective responses to public requirements, and whether they're the appropriate responders. So are they necessary and are they appropriate, to respond to the calls that people put in for assistance? And certainly there's research around that shows that police officer skillset and training are not the type of training that's needed to respond to the interactions that they have with the public. Police are trained in use of force or the use of violence and responding to potential threats, but they're not necessarily trained in how to appropriately respond to a range of other situations. For example, responding to people who might be in a mental health crisis. One of the other issues that's raised, is that police are required to respond to dangerous situations, that they have a dangerous occupation. And yet what we know from longitudinal studies of policing as an occupation is that there are many, many occupations in our society that are far more dangerous than police work. We know, for example, that forestry workers, and construction workers, truck drivers, sales drivers, refuse collectors, farmers, pilots, a whole range of jobs are much more dangerous than police officers. And we also know that in Australia over a long period of time, most police officers who die in the line of duty, do so because of accidents, most of which are motor vehicle related. Even in the US where there's far more frequency of police deaths by shootings, they're still relatively in the minority in terms of the causes of deaths of police. And we also need to put it in the context that police actually shoot far more and kill far more civilians than police themselves are shot by offenders. So in the US in 2020, there were 41 fatal shootings of police, while at the same time, police shot and killed over 1,000 civilians. And indeed the public health research in the US shows that 1 in 15 of all firearm deaths in the US are at the hands of the police, and among black Americans it's approximately 1 in 10 firearm deaths are caused by the police. In terms of the police's ability to solve crime, we need to begin by acknowledging that most reported crime to the police is not solved. So about two thirds of all rapes that are reported, 70% of robberies, nearly 90% of burglaries and motor vehicles thefts, are not solved by police. Homicides, are generally more likely to be solved, but that's largely because in most murders the offenders are actually known to the victim, and so they're somewhat in most cases more easily solved than other forms of crime. And we also know, even with homicides, that victims from racialized communities and marginalized communities, people who are homeless, who are sex workers, people living with mental illness and disability, their murders are more likely to remain unsolved or not investigated. And certainly we know from experience in Australia, Aboriginal victims, including child victims of murder, their investigations are not treated as seriously by police, as in other cases, and we've seen that with the Bowraville killings of Aboriginal children. And similar situation in Canada, the national inquiry in Canada into missing and murdered First Nations women and girls showed the problematic nature of police investigations into missing and murdered First Nations women and children. Whether crime gets reported or recorded is another issue. And we know that sort of social divisions that we have based on class, or gender, or age, race, ethnicity, indigeneity, disability, sexual orientation, and so forth, all of these impact on the likelihood of whether a person will actually report an offense to the police in the first place. Just to give you one example in the US, the survey of people with disabilities showed that only 5% of those crimes were reported to police, 5%, compared to an average of 44% for the general population. So that we know that less than half the general population will report crime to police. But then when we look at specific groups within society and often specific groups of people who have high rates of victimization, such as people with disabilities, there's only a very small proportion, 5% of those that are actually reported to police. We also know that there's big differences in terms of reporting crime to police depending on the nature of the society more generally. So we know that in general wealthier countries will have higher reporting rates, but even in those countries, countries like Austria, or Belgium, or Sweden, or Switzerland, which have the highest reporting rates to police, even in those countries, 30 to 40% of crime goes unreported. And if we contrast that with cities in the Global South, Sao Paolo in Brazil, Phnom Penh, Lima, Maputo, across the continents of South America, of Asia and Africa, there are more than 80% of the offenses that occur are not reported to police, because people don't trust the police, or they don't believe the police can do anything about the crimes. For instance, in the survey in Africa, women were asked about sexual victimization, and their reporting to police. And in those cases it was found very low levels of reporting, only 14% of women reported offenses to police. So that we know that there's both very low clear up rates, solving rates by police, and we know that there's very low reporting rates. So in the first instance, many people don't report offenses to police, and even those that are reported, there's often very low rates at which those offenses are solved. And so I think when you put that together what you see is that police may have little effect on the nature and incidents of crime within a particular society. I wanted to move on and talk about police discretion, and how police discretion also impacts on the idea of whether police will not solve crime. So one of the features of policing is broad discretion, and that's the ability of police to decide whether, when, and how to act, in enforcing the law and maintaining order. And we also know police discretion is bounded and influenced by a range of factors, including police culture and police training. And there have been many inquiries across many countries that have identified some of the problems, endemic problems with police culture and how that impacts on police discretion. And we know that factors such as, high tolerance of dishonesty, lying under oath, falsifying information and evidence, viewing legal rules that are inconvenient that can be ignored, and systemic and institutional racism, are all components of police culture. And we've seen that repeatedly shown in various investigations, royal commissions and reports, like the Macpherson Report in the UK, or the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Death in Custody in Australia. At the extreme level, police use their discretion in terms of how they might utilize violence or force and what level of violence they'll apply will be. And we know that coercive and sometimes lethal violence is used more frequently in interactions with black indigenous and people of color by police. So I wanna look at two in particular more practical examples if you like about how police discretion impacts on whether people are criminalized or not and it impacts on how or whether crime is solved or not. So in the first example, I wanna look at policing children and young people and how police discretion impacts on criminalization. And in the second example, I wanna have a look at policing of violence against LGBTQI communities, and how in that instance, police discretion fails to consider seriously crimes of violence against people in those communities. So if we think about policing young people, we can see how police use their discretion in terms of making decisions particularly about black and First Nations and other racialized groups of young people, which lead to negative outcomes. And this is based on some comparative work that myself and others have been involved in, in looking at Australia and England and Wales. And what we see is consistent complaints of racial profiling, harassment, violence, disproportionate and routine use of stops and searches, knife searches, strip searches, use of move on powers, and so forth, all of which are used to target racialized groups of kids. And in Australia, that's been primarily First Nations children and also various refugee children from different areas over longer periods of time, from Indo-China in the 1980s, and more recently from Africa and Arabic speaking children in Australia. Similarly in England and Wales, it's been primarily African, Caribbean, and Muslim young people that have born the brunt of police discretion leading to criminalization and negative outcomes, but it also affects other children in England and Wales, particularly Asian and Gypsy, Roman and traveler children. So racialization really becomes embedded in police practice, and those adverse decisions that police make really impact and cumulatively compound through the legal system. And so what that means is that the early decisions that police make about whether to arrest somebody, whether to use a diversionary option or not, leads to other outcomes, like more extensive criminal records and more punitive sentencing outcomes. And so in the end what we see, if we take Australia and England and Wales as examples, is that about 50% of children in child prisons in Australia are First Nations children, or in the UK, they're children from black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds. So the use of police discretion has a direct impact on whether children become criminalized and ultimately whether they become imprisoned within the justice system. Second example, is looking at the way in which police investigate or fail to investigate violence and murder of people in the LGBTQI community. So this is an example where police use their discretion not to act. So police violence against people in the LGBTQI community, has a long history and it continues today openly in many places. And we saw that just recently a few months ago in June, 2021, with the Turkish riot police using tear gas and rubber bullets against people who were attempting to take part in a banned Gay Pride March in Istanbul. And we've certainly seen other Gay Pride rallies internationally that have challenged the participation of police in Pride parades. And that's led to some groups like No Pride in Policing Coalition in Toronto calling for the defunding of police. So I think it provides a broader recognition of the problems of policing in relation to the LGBTQI community. But the case study that I wanted to look at, really focuses on police responses or lack of response to anti-gay and transgender murders in New South Wales during the 1980s and during 1990s, particularly in Sydney. And this involved the dozens of killings of gay men and transgender women during this period. Subsequent coronal re-investigations and a parliamentary committee report that was released in 2021, that bit highly critical of police investigations, pointing to ineptitude, to poor practices, to police corruption, to stereotypes of the murder victims, all of these impacted on the failure to properly investigate these murders over decades. And these issues are particular to Australia and many countries, including UK and Canada and the US, violence against LGBTQI communities has been on the rise. And so what we see in this example is that there's a failure of police, their discretion is used in a way that they fail to take violence against people in the LGBTQI community seriously. And the effect of that is that it really legitimizes the kind of broad boundaries around heteronormativity. So those who fall outside those boundaries, people in the gay, lesbian, communities for example, are ineligible for protection. And those who commit harm are ignored or excused. So I think both of these examples in terms of racialized young people, and violence in the LGBTQI community, show the different ways in which police discretion are used, either to unnecessarily criminalize some groups of people, or to ignore serious violence and murder against other groups of people. So I wanna move now from this discussion of some of the reasons as to why police are in a sense unable to seriously respond to crime within society. Just think about the kind of broader movement over the last several decades around the need to change the way policing works and to the contemporary movement to defund the police. So that the struggle against police violence and repression, the current struggle really has its roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And we've seen a continuous protest movement really over that period for at least the last 50 years by black and indigenous groups in North America, in Australia and the UK. And I wanna start off by talking about the late 1960s and the early 1970s and what I've referred to as little intertwining stories and the intertwining stories between the Black Power movement in Australia, between the American Indian Movement in the US and the Black Panthers in the US. And all of those three groups are acting simultaneously in the late '60s and early '70s in pushing to try and stop and control the extensive police violence that was occurring in those communities. And what we see almost simultaneously is the formation of the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis in the US, the Black Power movement and the formation of the Aboriginal Legal Service in Sydney and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, coming together to push for autonomy, for self-determination, self-defense, alongside practical struggles to try and contain, stop police violence in their respective communities. And I think the point about that, which is important is that, and in terms of thinking about today is the struggle against police violence and racism, it's been one of the defining features of modern indigenous and black radical politics. All those three movements, the Black Panthers, the Black Power in Australia, the American Indian Movement, all set out to protect their communities from police violence, but they also set out to provide community services and support that couldn't otherwise be accessed. So the establishment of community healthcare, of education, childcare, housing, black theaters, all of that was occurring at the same time. So it was both a kind of campaign against police violence but it was also a campaign for community empowerment and community services. And I think this is something which resonates completely today in relation to the Black Lives Matter and the Defund the Police movement. So divestment from police, defunding the police is one part of it, but investing in communities and community support and alternatives to police is also a key and perhaps bigger part than simply diminishing police power. So, it's not just about absence, it's not just about getting rid of the police, it's also about presence, about building alternatives, and about building and creating solidarity across groups so that those alternatives can work. During the 1970s, we saw continuous struggle against police violence in the UK, particularly against black communities, but also working class communities as well. And some of the great black British writers of that time of the 1970s, Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Stephen Andon, were all focused around the impact of policing in black communities. And Stephen Andon wrote I thought by and large the story of black struggle in the 1970s has almost always been the story of confrontations with police. We saw in Britain during this period the killings by Special Patrol Group police, SPG, killings of people in the 1970s, particularly at the time of the anti-racist campaigns, the Anti-Nazi League, the Rock Against Racism protests in London, we saw the 1981 riots, anti-police riots across many English cities, which involve mostly but not exclusively black young people, black youth, which have been sparked by aggressive policing, discriminatory stops and searches and saturation policing in predominantly black neighborhoods. And we also saw in 1984, the British miners strike which was to last for over a year, which had a huge impact both on working class communities as well as growing police militarization. And it was after Scarborough, the president of the National Union of Mine Workers said in summing up that period, "We had 11,000 people arrested during the course of the dispute, we had 7,000 people injured, many of them hospitalized. We had 200 people jailed, and we had 11 people killed during that strike." And what he had to say at the end of it was that "Police tactics in this dispute in the miners strike have revealed clearly to us what black and Asian communities throughout Britain will invite police harassment." And so I think there was a real coming together, if you like, of both class struggle around police violence, as well as the struggle of black communities in Britain. And there were renewed urban riots in 1985 and the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the subsequent campaign run by his family, which led in the Macpherson Report finding in the late 1990s of institutional racism within the London Metropolitan Police. Those issues continued through to the 2011 riots in London, which occurred up to the police fatal shooting of Mark Duggan in London. In Australia, we saw in the early 1980s, the police killing of John Pat in 1983, a 16 year old boy in Roebourne who was beaten to death by police, as well as other deaths like Eddie Murray. And that led to the establishment of the Committee to Defend Black Rights in 1983, led by Helen Corbett, Rose Stack and other Aboriginal women, as well as the involvement of families. And what that developed into was a really effective national and international campaign to force the Australian federal government to look at the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody. I think it's interesting that in terms of the way it was an international campaign, Hellen Corbett addressed the United Nation's Working Group in Geneva in August 1987 shortly before the federal government announced the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. And once she was addressing the Working Group in Geneva, the UN Working Group she foreshadowed really the contemporary language of the Black Lives Matter movement. She said "The Australian government must implement a federal Royal Commission to inquire into these deaths, to show that it strongly believes that Aboriginal lives are worth the same as the rest of the Australian population. These deaths of indigenous people in custody show that our rights are not respected, that racism exists with disastrous effects on our families, and that we cannot trust Australia's justice system." Shortly after that speech to the UN Working Group, the federal government announced the establishment of the Royal Commission to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. And really since that period in the late 1980s, the Royal Commission has set kind of broad parameters, if you like, of the activism around black deaths in custody. So in the US, we've also seen for that period during the 1970s, the 1980s, continuity from the Black Panthers, in terms of ongoing community organizing and activism often led by black feminists, and Barbara Ransby in her book on the Black Lives Matter movement details this quite clearly. And we see right through to the late 1990s with the establishment of Critical Resistance and in 2000 INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, this ongoing movements around police violence against black and other people of color in the US. And one of the common points between the US, the UK and Australia from that period of the 1980s onwards, has been the role of black women in campaigning and seeking justice for the victims of police violence. So I just want to draw some points towards the conclusion, and talk about the way in which that period through the '70s and the '80s and the '90s and into the 2000s has really broadened and underpinned our understanding of the contemporary need to defund the police. And it does that in a number of ways, and one is the connection between the Defund the Police, and what's broadly referred to as the abolitionist movement, the movement to abolish carceral systems of violence, including the police and the prisons. And I think that one of the lessons from that sort of 50 years of struggle is that abolition is not gonna happen this week or next week, that it is a long term struggle and we need to be able to articulate the criteria for change in terms of what's supported and what's not supported, if you like, in relation to how we change systems of policing and the justice system more generally. And I think abolitionist reforms are really around how we retract or diminish the system, how we kind of redirect what police do at the moment, redirect that to establishing community alternatives, to re-imagining community safety, to disarming the police and to shrinking their budgets. And that's opposed to the types of reforms that we often hear about which really just expand and strengthen the existing system, sort of police and prisons, and so arguments around reforms such as anti-bias training or technological fixers like use of body cams or non-lethal alternatives or community policing. I mean, people have been talking about that for 50 years and endless government reports have been advocating those types of changes. And I think one thing that's clear over this period is that those changes simply strengthen and expand the system, they don't change the fundamental problems. Some of the other issues that have, I think emerged over this period of time is a distinction between feminist abolitionism and carceral feminism. And carceral feminism, has been referred to as the reliance on policing and criminal prosecution and imprisonment as a core solution to violence against women. Whereas feminist abolitionists have argued in terms of, responding to violence against women through the development of non-state community control responses that protect women. They still hold offenders accountable, but address some of the more underlying causes of violence. And I think the third area that we could think about over this 50 year period is how we imagine the role of the state and whether we see the state as inevitably carceral and colonialist, or whether we can actually remove those elements from the state and make it a more social democratic institution. So how does the states articulate with a range of areas like indigenous nation building? Is that impossible to conceive or is that something which we can think of as working effectively? And how do we think about the provision of social goods? And I think activists like Angela Davis have tried to articulate some of these issues. And so that a focus on changes on reform is not necessarily simply an escape from the state, but also how it might be captured and transformed. And so she argues that many feminists and prison abolitionists want to both demolish the carceral state and build democratic institutions that actually distribute social, economic and political power more equitably. (sot music) - We hope you have enjoyed this talk with Professor Chris Cunneen. He'll be publishing a book in early 2023 by Policy Press, keep an eye out for an interesting read on defunding the police. (soft music)