'Just the tip of the iceberg': more work needed after end of harmful police program
NSW Police say it will discontinue its Suspect Targeted Management Plan (STMP) following a Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) investigation that expressed significant concerns and called the STMP 'unreasonable, unjust and oppressive'.
The STMP is a pre-emptive policing program that selects and targets people, including children, who police predict may commit crimes in the future.
Dr Vicki Sentas, a senior lecturer at UNSW Law & Justice, showed in 2017 that the STMP was disproportionately harmful to young and Indigenous people. Her co-authored report, Policing Young People in NSW: A Study of the Suspect Targeting Management Plan, sparked the LECC investigation, whose results led to this week's development.
“The aim of the STMP was to disrupt people's everyday lives with coercive and punitive interventions. It was heavy-handed, excessive, and oppressive. It increased vulnerable young people's contact with police and the criminal justice system, going against basic principles of diverting youth from crime. Our research found children as young as 10 and 12 were targeted,” says Dr Sentas.
A study of the STMP
Dr Sentas first noticed a pattern of intensified police harassment in 2013 through her work at Redfern Legal Centre, where she runs a police powers clinic for UNSW law students. Clients and lawyers in community legal centres, Legal Aid, and the Aboriginal Legal Service were sharing similar concerns.
“For just one example, a young Aboriginal boy had been stopped and searched hundreds of times. His family was distraught, and they were about to move out of their home to avoid the harassment. His prior offending was very minor, shoplifting, and he had behavioural and cognitive difficulties,” says Dr Sentas.
At the time, no information on the STMP was available in the public domain. Dr Sentas and report co-author Camilla Pandolfini, then a Public Interest Advocacy Centre lawyer, had to build knowledge from the ground up. They developed a community-based network of collaborators and lawyers who could advocate on the STMP in partnership with the Youth Justice Coalition.
Dr Sentas also led a research team in rigorous academic analysis of case studies from interviews with the lawyers, case law and court documents, and limited quantitative data. They reported the findings in 2017 which alerted the broader community to the impact of the STMP policy on young people.
Gradual but life-changing systematic change
In response to the report and its public attention, Dr Sentas says NSW Police revised the policy to gradually reduce the number of children aged under 14 on the STMP. But Dr Sentas says that the STMP was unreformable and needed to be scrapped.
In 2018, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) launched an independent investigation. Their final results published in October 2023 found the STMP 'is, or may be, unreasonable, unjust, oppressive or improperly discriminatory in its effect on children and young people'.
NSW Police stopped using the policy on young children in September 2023, avoiding any formal finding from the LECC of agency maladministration. Dr Sentas welcomes the NSW Police decision to completely cease using the STMP by December.
“It's incredibly rare and difficult for manifestly oppressive systems of policing to be abandoned. This is the result of the LECC's persistent and careful scrutiny. Robust police accountability needs to be well-resourced and ongoing,” says Dr Sentas.
“The result is critically important for overpoliced communities and especially First Nations communities who have been advocating for a change to heavy-handed policing for many decades.
“But there is much more work to be done. The STMP is just the tip of the iceberg. First Nations are grossly overrepresented in all aspects of everyday policing: from general and strip searches to consorting warnings to bail breaches and more.”
A new approach
Dr Sentas' research indicated police had been unlawfully searching children and young people, not because they were suspected of committing an actual offence but because they were listed on the STMP. The research also showed that First Nations young people were disproportionately targeted.
As NSW Police has indicated they will develop a replacement program, Dr Sentas says they would need to work closely with and listen to Aboriginal community organisations.
“Any new police framework for the early prevention of crime must be incorporated into the NSW Closing the Gap process, focused on supporting health, housing and education, as well as trauma-informed, culturally supportive approaches led by rather than punitive and coercive ones,” says Dr Sentas.
“The approach to supporting First Nations children needs to be led by First Nations communities.”