Illustration: Michael Mucci.
NSW is over-policed. Taxpayers are funding a costly, inefficient and increasingly intrusive force that devotes only 21 per cent of its work hours to investigating crime. Most of the rest is soft stuff and bureaucracy. The amount of the public’s time being wasted by police is both prodigious and unacknowledged.
Without exception, every single intrusion by police, every act of harassment, every misallocation of resources, is rationalised as “public safety”. This Orwellian catch-all is used to rationalise a multitude of sins.
On average, about 16,000 people a day are enduring random intrusions by police, fined for petty offences, or fined via private tax collectors acting for profit.
I don’t even have to leave my house to sense the scale of the rising officiousness. The following incident, multiplied by a thousand times a day, is why the NSW Police are on a course to being perceived as an occupying army rather than a safety net:
On December 22, a woman double-parked outside my house to pick up a package from me. It didn’t take long, it was mid-afternoon, the street was quiet. Suddenly, a police siren wailed. A patrol car had pulled up behind her. The siren blast was manifestly unnecessary. The woman drove off and there had been no disruption to traffic. A few days later she received a Traffic Infringement Notification. She had been fined $242. She could pay or she could go to court.
She was outraged. By any measure, this was bastardry, and thus poor policing. Patrol cars are linked to the police data base, so Officer Siren would have seen that the woman had a very good driving record. He booked her anyway, for a trivial breach.
Two weeks ago it happened again. Another police siren outside my house. It was mid-morning. I went outside to see another woman being booked by another Officer Siren.
I took a photo of the car with my iPhone. The police officer called out “Can I help you, sir?”
I replied: “Do you think you’re doing the reputation of the police any good by doing this?”
“The car is double-parked. There’s nothing I can do about what people think, sir.”
I replied: “There’s everything you can do.”
Every year, NSW police stop more than five million people who have done nothing wrong. They do so politely, but most of these interventions are non-productive and cost the public tens of thousands of hours of lost time. The majority of these checks are bureaucratic make-work.
Only about 0.35 per cent of people stopped for random breath tests are charged with an offence, and most of those offences are minor.
There is a social cost to the increasing use of police and paralegals as tax collectors. As a former NSW police detective told me: “The exponential rise in revenue from Traffic Infringement Notices since the advent of privatised speed cameras has seen an escalation in people losing their licences, and their employment. Some have even lost their homes.”
On March 8, the NRMA took the unusual step of issuing a press release to complain about the way the state government was using private sub-contractors to ramp up the revenue collected from motorists via mobile speed traps: “New data shows almost 41,000 motorists have been fined by the cameras so far this financial year, up from almost 26,500 in 2013-14.”
That’s a 50 per cent surge. The NRMA urged the government to have the speed limit displayed on warning signs, “to reduce unnecessary anxiety for motorists”. It called for a fairer, safer warning system, as warnings are currently displayed only 250 metres and 50 metres before the speed camera. The NRMA wants the speed camera vehicles more clearly marked.
The major corporate operator of mobile speed cameras is Redflex. It has a contract with the NSW government and its 2014 annual report contains this ominous paragraph: “During financial year 2014, over $3.5 million was invested in the [NSW] contract which is anticipated to deliver annual revenue of more than $9 million per annum over the next two-and-a-half-year period.”
Redflex thus estimates it will harvest revenue of $23 million during the duration of its contract until 2016. Packaged as “public safety” of course.
Ever since random breath testing was introduced in 1982, there has been a steady decline in road fatalities. The annual reports of the NSW Police have cited RBT as the most effective tool in the fight to reduce fatalities. But the deterrent effect of RBT plateaued years ago. The continued downward trend in fatalities in the past decade has come more from the introduction of air bags and improvements in auto technology.
Police could achieve broadly the same impact with RBT with half the rate of stoppages, half the cost, and half the social disruption. Instead, the police and the government are going in the opposite direction, with more intrusions.
Compounding this policy malfunction is the rip-off of motorists at the federal level. Over the past 15 years, the federal government has extracted $136 billion in fuel excises from vehicle-owners, yet spent $53 billion on road infrastructure. The disparity is $83 billion. Vehicle owners are thus being milked by government in addition to the impositions imposed by the states.
Then there is local government, where inner-city councils deploy swarms of tax collectors they call “rangers”. No bureaucratic euphemism can disguise the grim pettiness attached to the term “parking inspector”. They seem to live in my street.
At every level of government – federal, state, local – vehicle-owners are being used as cash cows by government, in a disingenuous and increasingly intrusive way. And I don’t even own a car.