Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Policing the Rural Crisis

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Policing the Rural Crisis

Article excerpt

Based on empirical research in a number of rural communities in north-western NSW, this article explores the dynamics of rural crisis as it is manifested in and through popular attitudes and campaigns around law and order. There is no denying that crime rates in many rural communities are high, often very high by national standards, or that local crime disproportionately involves Indigenous offenders (and Indigenous victims). However, the views expressed in interviews with established White residents, in local media and in organised campaigns around law and order are suggestive of a much deeper sense of threat and crisis. This, it is argued, can be explained in relation not simply to crime rates but the way in which crime is experienced at the local level and the manner in which it is connected to other unwanted change that is seen to threaten the integrity of these communities. In order to understand these anxieties it is necessary to explore historical patterns of settlement, the economic structure and the culture of rural communities. Indigenous Australians have, at best, occupied an ambiguous and fragile position in relation to membership of these communities, a form of 'passive' belonging, 'conditional' on deference to dominant White norms governing civic and domestic life. Local Indigenous crime can be a source of deep anxiety not only because it causes harm to person and property but because it is interpreted by many Whites as a repudiation of the local social order, a signifier of larger threats to the community and on occasions as a harbinger of social breakdown. The article explores some of the key themes emerging from interview material that characterise this sense of crisis and relates them to the larger pattern of change affecting many communities: economic decline, changing government policies and priorities, the growing relative economic and political power of Indigenous people, debates about native title and so on.

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The research on which this article (1) is based was carried out over a 3-year period (1998-2000) in communities in north-western NSW. (2) Two earlier articles were published in this journal (Hogg & Carrington, 1998, 2003). All the communities in which we undertook research had crime rates substantially above the state and Sydney metropolitan averages, as indeed do most nonmetropolitan regions in NSW. There is also abundant evidence that in these communities, as well as more generally, there are very high levels of contact between Indigenous people and the criminal justice system (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1995, 2004; Anti-Discrimination Board, 1982; Broadhurst, 2002; Cunneen, 2001; Cunneen & Robb, 1987; Jochelson, 1997; NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 1999; Weatherbum, Lind, & Hua, 2003). Debate continues as to whether these high levels of involvement are best understood in terms of high levels of Indigenous crime or the discriminatory overpolicing of Indigenous communities. Different interpretations suggest different policy responses.

These are important debates but they are not my central concern here. I am willing to accept that there are serious crime problems in these communities. Indigenous Australians are disproportionately the victims as well as the offenders in these crimes. They also take the greater share of practical responsibility for dealing with the problems: staffing refuges, conducting night patrols, looking out for neglected kids and so on. I would maintain, however, that the present high level of criminal justice intervention in Indigenous lives and communities, whether it is properly characterised as discriminatory or not, cannot but perpetuate the levels of crime it seeks to control. Quite apart from anything else it simply wreaks social, demographic and economic havoc on families and communities to have so many of their members caught up in the disruptive cycle of the criminal process. A rational response to the crime problems would have to find other ways than a reliance on tougher law-and-order measures. …

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