Falling police numbers symptom of larger issues in law and order

March 8, 2024 10:00 AM
Libby Mettam
WA Liberal Leader

Every West Australian would agree that keeping our community safe is a fair and reasonable expectation, especially in a state as prosperous as ours. 

After all, keeping its citizens safe is the first duty of any Government because wherever fear and crime flourish, people cannot.

The same can be said for our small businesses, our communities, and not to mention the burden that violent crime and anti-social behaviour places on our already overstretched hospital system.

So why, after seven years of Labor promises on increasing frontline policing, and taking a strong stand on crime and anti-social behaviour, is police recruitment and retention in WA at an all-time low, and crime and anti-social behaviour are at an all-time high?

For all the promises of increasing recruitment and boosting officer numbers, including a publicity driven recruitment tour to the UK last year, WA Police have suffered an attrition rate never seen before, with nearly 1000 officers walking out the door over the past two years.

Last year, 403 officers resigned, 78 retired and only 377 were recruited. In the first month of 2024, 35 police officers have quit and a further 11 retired, placing Labor’s pre-election promise to boost the force by 950 officers by mid-2024 seemingly impossible.

And while the Minister for Police claims the reason for this exodus and lacklustre recruitment is WA’s competitive jobs market, the reality is our police officers are burnt out and morale within the force is at an all-time low.

There is a culture problem in our police force that the Minister refuses to accept - that officers feel undervalued and ignored. This is why they are resigning in record numbers.

According to the WA Police Union, police officers are “working within an unrelenting environment, being assaulted, spat on, kicked, punched, and psychologically harmed … scrutinised by the public and their own employer for every word spoken and every action taken”.

The WA Public Sector Census results for the Western Australia Police Force further expose the extent of the discontent. Only 47 per cent of officers surveyed would recommend the force as a place to work, compared with almost 70 per cent across the wider public sector workforce.

This is one of the lowest approval ratings of any agency in the WA public sector and shows that this is a workforce clearly at a crisis point, due to a government failing to recognise and acknowledge the difficult role policing has in protecting our community.

In the words of the WA Police Union, this is a government that “has been overpromising and underdelivering for a prolonged period now”.

The sad reality is that the fewer ‘boots on the ground’ there are, the greater the increase in crime and anti-social behaviour. 

The latest WA crime statistics show non-family threatening behaviour is up by 32 per cent from last year, while family-related threatening behaviour is up by 38 per cent. Assaults are also escalating, with family-related incidents up by 15 per cent in the past 12 months alone.

The regions are especially suffering with this surge in crime and anti-social and violent behaviour, particularly as they struggle to fill job vacancies. 

A recent visit to Kalgoorlie highlighted some of the atrocities residents and businesses face daily.

Cars being rammed through store fronts. A newsagency owner being dragged onto the street where her head was smashed into the ground. Local businesses hiding staff and tourists in back rooms while their stores are looted. Retail workers being threatened with rape. 

This is a town in crisis, but it is by no means the only one. 

The situation is replicated at other regional centres and metropolitan areas across the state, exacerbated by a lack of police numbers and compounded by a justice system that continually resorts to a light-touch approach - letting offenders off without consequence, only for them to reoffend while on bail.

The government’s response has been to announce tougher penalties for assaulting retail workers. 

Although any measure to keep workers safe is supported, why does it apply only to retail workers? 

What about other innocent victims who are assaulted outside of the workplace through no fault of their own, such as Danny Hodgson?

And what guarantees can the government provide that the harsher measures will be handed down by the courts? 

Anecdotal evidence points to a justice system that rarely imposes maximum sentences, especially when dealing with youth crime.

Without any assurance they will be implemented, this appears to be just another public relations ploy to divert and deflect attention from a government that likes to talk tough but has absolutely dropped the ball when it comes to delivering the basics.

That includes ensuring we have enough police officers who are supported, backed, and appreciated for the difficult job they do in protecting our community.

Small business owners, residents, victims, and their families have had enough and the people of Western Australia deserve better. 

As Liberal leader – both in opposition and in government - I will continue to back our police, support the law-abiding majority in this State, and push for reforms to our justice system that better supports victims and ensures that criminals are not only caught but punished.

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