Opposition police spokesman Ed O’Donohue says that front line police numbers have decreased by 190 in Victoria under the Andrews Government. (Twitter: @BrendanDonohoe7)
With Victoria’s crime rate centre-stage in this month’s state election, Labor’s record on police resourcing is under attack from the Liberal Party.
Opposition police spokesman Edward O’Donohue has repeatedly claimed frontline police have decreased under Premier Daniel Andrews, saying several times throughout September and October 2018:
“Frontline police numbers have fallen under Labor with Police Association figures showing there are now 190 fewer uniform officers than in 2013 despite Victoria’s population increasing by over half a million.”
But the Government rejects this, touting its five-year plan to recruit 3,125 police and arguing there are “more frontline police now than ever before”.
Have frontline police been cut by the Andrews Government? And is Mr O’Donohue justified in citing the 190 figure?
RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Mr O’Donohue’s claim is misleading.
The figure he cites covers substantially more than the period Labor has been in office, so cannot be used to assess the record of just one government.
Have frontline police numbers fallen under the Andrews Government? (File photo: Victoria Police)
There is also no agreed definition of what “the front line” means. One UK survey showed that the public takes it to mean different things.
The definition relied on by Mr O’Donohue is different from that used by Victoria Police, for example, whose data shows frontline police increased under Labor by around 1,000 full-time equivalent staff.
The overall increase in police numbers is not acknowledged in Mr O’Donohue’s various press releases.
Experts consulted by Fact Check said focusing on emergency responses and street patrols was a narrow way to view police resourcing.
Taking a broader view, the Productivity Commission measures the number of police directly serving the community. Its latest data shows the number of these police increased under Labor.
And while Mr O’Donohue has supported police union criticisms that too many police are going to taskforces, it is police, rather than government, that makes staffing decisions, though experts said these decisions can be influenced by politics.
The Andrews Government began its four-year term on December 4, 2014, but Mr O’Donohue said frontline police had fallen “under Labor” since 2013.
His claim makes clear he is using figures from Victoria’s police union, the Police Association.
A spokesman for the association told Fact Check it conducts a headcount of all frontline police every five years, with its latest recording a decrease from 6,325 officers to 6,135 between March 2013 and March 2018.
But it did not collect data for the intervening years, meaning its figures cannot be used to deduce when any cuts took place, and whether that was under the previous Coalition government that held office for the first 20 months of the count.
Notably, the association figures are in headcount terms, and do not factor in hours worked.
What ‘front line’ is he talking about?
In reaching the 190 figure cited by Mr O’Donohue, the association has used a particular definition of “the front line”.
In its view, frontline police means “general duties uniform police at police stations, members who are tasked with manning patrol vans and responding to active crimes and calls for assistance from the public”.
This definition includes emergency response and general duties cops but excludes sworn police in specialist roles such as highway patrol or taskforces dedicated to particular types of crime, including family violence.
But Terry Goldsworthy, a former police officer and now criminologist with Bond University, said any officer in a police car can be tasked with responding to emergency incidents.
“So it’s ludicrous to say those kinds of units [e.g. detectives or highway patrol] are not frontline police. They’re not performing general duties, but if a traffic accident happens in front of them, or a crime happens in front of them, they’re responding.”
Mr O’Donohue has made his claim in various contexts — sometimes referring directly to emergency responders, other times to safety more generally.
On October 9, he tweeted: “While frontline police numbers have been cut by 190 under Daniel Andrews, a @MatthewGuyMP Govt will focus on a strong visible, proactive police presence with more police on the beat and in local communities.”
Not the only definition
Though Mr O’Donohue has relied on the association’s frontline definition, it’s not the only one out there — and experts couldn’t point to an agreed one.
Darren Palmer, a criminologist with Deakin University, said the term frontline was used politically and had “no strict operational definition”.
Dr Goldsworthy said the term was “very misleading, and entirely selective”.
Victoria Police told Fact Check it defines frontline police as “not only the resources based at the police stations, but also those servicing local communities”.
“This includes a number of divisional resources including Highway Patrols, Crime Investigation Units and Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Teams, to respond to calls for assistance, investigate crime and deal with road trauma,” a spokeswoman said.
The UK Government explored the debate over definitions through a 2011 inquiry, which consulted police and surveyed roughly 1,000 members of the public.
“Most of those consulted agreed that … specialist roles (e.g. those in criminal investigation departments) were front line,” the report found.
But the results also revealed varying opinions on what else was included:
“A clear majority of the public saw call handlers as front line; a small majority thought custody officers were front line; and a minority saw intelligence-processing roles as front line.”
What the experts say
Policing experts consulted by Fact Check said focusing on street patrols and emergency responses was a narrow way to view police services.
Dr Palmer said it was “nonsense” to focus only on general duties police, because cops do much more than patrol the streets and respond to emergencies.
“And we want them to do a lot more because we wanted them to investigate gangland crime,” he said, referring to Victoria’s taskforce into organised crime in the 2000s.
“They were still doing things like arresting people, following people, questioning people, things police do.”
Dr Palmer said specialists in family violence, though not usually first on the scene, were at the front line of police services, often taking witness statements, compiling evidence, preparing for court and dealing with intervention orders.
He told Fact Check that some specialists are even co-located with other community services.
That sentiment was echoed by Dr Goldsworthy, who said:
“They may not be the first person there, but they’re the person actually doing investigations through to … trial. To say that they’re not frontline I think is disingenuous.”
He also pointed out the role investigations play in crime prevention by taking repeat offenders out of action.
Dr Dave McDonald, a criminology lecturer with the University of Melbourne, told Fact Check modern policing required a mix of general duties and specialist police.
“The reality now is that crime is much more complex than it used to be, and the effectiveness of general duties police and patrolling the streets … is really quite an outdated model,” he said.
The broader picture
Sources other than the police union tell a different story of police resourcing in Victoria.
The Victoria Police spokeswoman told Fact Check that, using the police definition, the number of full-time equivalent staff in frontline roles rose from 9,387 in December 2014 to 10,833 in September 2018, the latest data available.
That represents an increase of 996 full-time equivalent officers since Labor took office.
Meanwhile, the Productivity Commission makes no reference to frontline police in its 2018 government services report.
It prefers using “operational status” to estimate the number of police directly serving the community, a measure also recommended by Dr Palmer and Dr Goldsworthy.
The commission defines operational staff as “any member (sworn or unsworn) whose primary duty is the delivery of police or police-related services to an external client”, with external clients usually meaning members of the public.
The latest commission data covers just two years of the Andrews Government, but shows the number of operational police (sworn only) grew by 532 full-time equivalent staff between June 2015 and June 2017, reaching a total of 13,589. Including unsworn staff, the number grew by 1,232.
The 2018 report also says that “the responsiveness of police to calls for assistance is critical to the effectiveness of police services”, though Victoria told the commission it was unable to provide data for this.
Neither Victoria Police nor the association include in their frontline counts armed Protective Services Officers (PSOs) patrolling railway stations or Police Custody Officers (PCOs) helping to manage police station cells. Though not sworn police, their numbers also climbed under Labor.
According to annual reports, Victoria Police hired an extra 241 PSOs between June 2015 and June 2018, and an extra 391 PCOs since 2015-16.
Dr Palmer said that since PSOs were patrolling train stations at night and interacting with the public, not calling them frontline was “splitting hairs”.
Dr Goldsworthy didn’t think they should be included as frontline, but said PSOs would free up other police resources and discourage people from committing crimes.
And the introduction of PCOs, Victoria Police’s 2017-18 annual report said, had “enabled police at those locations to focus on general policing”.
Who’s making the decisions?
In claiming that frontline police had decreased under Labor, Mr O’Donohue supported police association criticisms that too many cops are going to taskforces.
But while funding decisions that determine the number of police are made by government, staffing decisions such as who becomes frontline are not.
As the Victorian Ombudsman noted in 2009:
“It is Victoria Police which allocates where they [police] go.”
Dr McDonald said the police executive decides where staff are deployed, though there are exceptions, such as when the former Coalition government announced that Protective Services Officers would start patrolling metro and major train stations.
“The longstanding tradition is that these resourcing decisions are at the discretion of the Chief Commissioner, but the reality is that they can also be quite political decisions,” he said.
Dr Palmer also said it was up to police management to decide how police resources were deployed: “In some states you can actually give directives to police, but they’re broad. They’re not like ‘I want two police in Torquay’.”
But he backed the view that politics still comes into it, noting that if a government promised to open a new station or focus on particular crimes, this would kick off funding negotiations for more staff.
Principal researcher: David Campbell
- Matthew Guy & Edward O’Donohue, Media release, September 11, 2018
- Matthew Guy & Edward O’Donohue, Media release, September 12, 2018
- Edward O’Donohue, Media release, October 22, 2018
- Edward O’Donohue, Media release, October 31, 2018
- Edward O’Donohue, Tweet, October 9, 2018
- Lisa Neville, Press release, October 17, 2018
- Victorian Budget 2018-19, Overview, May 2018
- UK Criminal Justice Inspectorates, Inquiry into the front line and police visibility, June 2011
- Productivity Commission, Report on government services, January 2018
- ABC News, ‘Victoria Police needs more frontline officers, fewer special taskforces, Police Association says’, September 9, 2018
- Victoria Police, Annual reports, 2014-15 to 2017-18
- Victoria Police, Police employees by location (September 2018), October 15, 2018
- Parliament of Victoria, Research paper on 2011 PSOs Bill, 2011
- Ombudsman Victoria, Crime statistics and police numbers, March 2009