28 March 2009

Violence in public places

Victoria, like other States in Australia and some other countries, has experienced in the past few years a marked increase in the frequency and severity of violence in public places. Victoria Police has identified the triggers and precursors to public-safety-related crime to include or involve: large public gatherings (protests, sporting events), 24-hour lifestyle, transport, entertainment precincts, alcohol, illicit drugs, young people, contested public domain, culture, gender, crowd dynamics, technology and the role of the media.

Victoria Police decided, however, that there remained a need to gain a deeper understanding of these drivers and the links between them. Accordingly, it commissioned Australia 21 to conduct a roundtable on antisocial behaviour and public safety and to prepare a report on the discussions and outcomes. This roundtable was organised and chaired by Australia 21 director Dr Richard Eckersley, one of Australia’s leading thinkers and writers about the health and well-being of young Australians.

The roundtable, which was held in Melbourne on 23 October 2008, was conducted under the Chatham House Rule: what participants said could be used in the resulting report, but they would not be identified by name or affiliation. It addressed the question: What are the precursors and triggers of antisocial behaviour and the options for improved policy intervention to reduce such activity in public spaces?

The 23 participants included Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon and Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe. The others were drawn from a range of relevant scientific disciplines and Victorian Government agencies with responsibility for policy development and implementation.

The report was prepared by Australia 21. Participants and the commissioning police were given an opportunity to comment on a draft, but neither the participants nor Victoria Police were asked to endorse or approve it: the responsibility for the report rests with Australia 21 and the authors, Dr Eckersley and Australia 21 Executive Director Dr Lynne Reeder.

In the course of the workshop a variety of measures was proposed for dealing with the problem. Some participants focused on more immediate, direct interventions to deal with public violence, such as achieving a better mix of regulatory strategies, training bar staff in handling all aggressive behaviours, not just drunkenness, more targeted policing of problem premises, and holding organisers of public events more responsible and accountable.

Other participants emphasised a broader social development perspective such as broadening the focus of the education system, introducing specific programs in schools to enhance the social and emotional wellbeing of students, investing in increased parent education, and making more use of public education campaigns.

My own feeling is that, while the first category of more direct and immediate interventions is no doubt necessary to help us to deal with the world as we find it today, these are tactical interventions and we will not make the necessary progress towards the world as we would like it to be without the long strategic haul of seeking to bring about the sort of attitudinal changes that will deal with the underlying problems.

Most, if not all, participants in the workshop agreed on the need for a multi-dimensional strategy spanning timeframes, social scales and government jurisdictions.

The report concludes that ad hoc, piecemeal responses to complex social problems such as antisocial behaviour in general, and public violence in particular, don’t work. The key ingredients to successful action are judged to include strong leadership, effective partnerships between all relevant parties, a long timeframe for development and implementation, and an explicit attention to the sustainability of programs.

The report may be downloaded from here.

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