Harm reduction policing key to safer communities

Professor Janet Ransley.

Police should be allowed to focus more on reducing crime and associated harms and less on law enforcement, according to leading criminologist Professor Janet Ransley.

In presenting the 2018 Griffith University Arts, Education & Law Professorial Lecture at South Bank last night, Professor Ransley said there was a disconnection between what police can do to reduce crime and improve community safety and what actually occurs most of the time.

“The investigation and arrest of offenders will always be a significant part of policing,” she said.

“This is an important contributor to justice for victims, and social retribution for the wrongs committed.

“But, police also have a role in harm reduction. However this requires a shift in mindset from officer as crime fighter to a broader policing role.”

She said a harm-reduction approach to policing would recognise that much crime co-occurs with other harms, like mental illness, addiction, homelessness and family dysfunction.

“Many of these harms are only made worse by standard policing and criminal justice models. This applies not just to individuals whose life prospects get worse with each arrest. It recognises that the warehousing in our prisons of people with mental illness, and the moving on of sex workers and the homeless, often to riskier environments, cause great harm.

“It is time to think of policing as part of a broader public safety and security agenda that addresses all of these harms in an integrated way.”

She said harm reduction was already important in some areas of policing such as road safety.

“For the past 20 years at least, most road policing activity has been directed at reducing deaths and injuries. We accept implicitly that speeding tickets and random breath tests are a means to reducing road trauma, not law enforcement for its own sake.

“With such an approach to illicit drugs for example, police would prioritise reducing risks to users. Needle exchanges might be joined by pill testing at festivals, rather than sniffer dogs as we see in some states. The target would be reduced overdoses, not drug arrests.”

She said there would also be close attention to harms that users impose on others — including victims and users’ families.

“A harm-focused approach to policing would reorient the system of policing to identifying and reducing harms, with arrests and law enforcement seen as just one worthwhile part of the toolbox for achieving this, just as it is in road policing.

“The other practices of proactive policing, especially community collaborations, would be equally important. Analysing underlying problems and developing lasting solutions would become the key role on which police are measured.”

Professor Ransley is the Director of the Griffith Criminology Institute based at Griffith University. Her research interests are in police governance, integrity and strategies and fairness in justice processes.