Over the weekend, Ted Baillieu announced plans to approve armed guards ("protective services officers") with arrest powers and semi-automatic weapons on Melbourne trains.
It's well established (or well reported, in any case) that Melbourne has a violent crime problem on the streets, or, at the very least, there is a greater awareness of that violence - particularly stabbings and alcohol related violence. Crime stats were at a 10 year high in the 2009/10 period.
The targeting of Indian students on public transport resulted in protests calling for greater police presence, and particularly a multicultural police unit. The greater awareness of stabbing crime has resulted in designated search areas in the city, and major advertising campaigns have been run to tackle both people carrying knives (one of these "Knives Scar Lives" posters is very cleverly up in the toilets at the boxing gym I go to) and to encourage people to avoid drunken confrontation.
So, it's understandable that a new government would respond to these calls, even where it's a case of stacking solution upon solution upon solution (before reviewing the 2010/11 crime stats), by siezing the chance to cement itself as tough on crime and increasing security on one of the key places identified by the public as "dangerous" after hours.
My question is - why move protective services officers (PSOs) onto the trains (something they have never previously been equipped to do)? Why would you not take the money you're using to fund the 940 new PSOs and funnel it into Victoria Police?
Given that it's only very recently been the case that Victorian Police Officers have been approved to carry semi-automatic weapons (they are still not fully deployed, and are not expected to be so until 2012), after much gnashing of teeth, and understandable resistance from Christine Nixon as the Police Association drove the change, it's understandable that the Police Association is none too happy about this announcement. After all, when you've had to fight tooth and nail to be eligible to carry the weapons yourself, as fully qualified police officers, it would be rather insulting to hear the the new transport police will be carrying them from the get go. And you'd also be right to be pissed about the suggestion of a second-tier police force taking funding that by all rights should be yours.
While there is a clear difference between Authorised Officers and PSOs, you can't deny that people's experience of Authorised Officers will inform their response to the PSOs on trains - both anecdotally and according to complaints statistics, many people have found Authorise Officers to be intentionally intimidating and to use undue force to detain fair evaders.
Will PSOs just be stationed to keep trains safe from violent crimes? Or will they also be transport police, expected to stop fare evaders? And given that people already see Authorised Officers as using undue force, one has to question what reaction people will have to the Baillieu government equipping PSOs with semi-automatic weapons. And that's not even addressing the actual (legitimate) safety concerns of these weapons being deployed, just the perception.
PSOs are state-government rent-a-cops. They are trained for eight weeks. They are not police. They are being given arrest capability and automatic weapons and will be patrolling amongst the public.
So, Mr Baillieu, I'm not suggesting you send your best qualified police officers onto trains, but if you want to "get serious on crime", you hire police.
Put the money into the police force, increase presence on the streets of Melbourne and rotate a roster of your newest police onto the trains at night (those police you can now afford because you're not paying for 940 people who couldn't make the cut as actual officers). This will cut crime. Putting loaded semi-automatic weapons into the hands of lightly trained mock-police and throwing them on the trains at night is likely to only create it.
And a crisis for a new government.