ACT police apprehending many more Aboriginals than four years ago
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ACT police apprehending many more Aboriginals than four years ago

ACT Policing are apprehending Indigenous Canberrans 35 per cent more often than they were just four years ago, while non-Aboriginal apprehensions have fallen slightly.

A law lecturer says the data raises questions about whether the force suffers from unconscious bias and systemic racism.

The ACT's Justice Directorate says that, in the year to March 2017, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were apprehended 868 times, up from 643 four years earlier.

Apprehensions include police cautioning, arresting or even just stopping people.

Over the same period, police made about 1 per cent fewer apprehensions of non-Indigenous Canberrans.

There were 6508 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the ACT in 2016, about 1.6 per cent of the population.

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Australian National University college of law senior lecturer and barrister Dr Anthony Hopkins said the statistics raised questions of unconscious bias and systemic racism.

"The steeper rise suggests that when police are interacting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the community they're more inclined to operate by way of arrest than caution," Dr Hopkins said.

He said there was an onus on the ACT government and police to explain the disproportionate rates.

"We [the ACT] do hold ourselves out as a progressive human rights jurisdiction and you'd think that at the foundation would be a real commitment to reducing the grossly disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members," he said.

Do you know more? Contact finbar.omallon@fairfaxmedia.com.au or use the Signal smartphone app to message 0437 464 126.

The data shows that, of the charges police laid, far more were leading to arrests. The number of arrests for Aboriginal Canberrans increased by 64 per cent over the four years.

The racism in Canberra, and in Australia in general, hasn't gotten any better.

Aboriginal Legal Services ACT's Leo Nickels

For non-Aboriginals, the number of arrests rose only by 24 per cent.

The government and ACT Policing said they were aware of the increase but pointed to the 25 per cent increase in Canberra's Indigenous population recorded between the 2011 and 2016 censuses.

They also said individual offenders could be apprehended, arrested and cautioned more than once.

"Where an offender is identified, regardless of their ethnicity, police will pursue the matter," a police spokesman said.

An ACT government spokesman acknowledged Aboriginal Canberrans were significantly over-represented in the justice system.

Aboriginal Legal Services ACT practice manager Leo Nickels said police were in denial about racial profiling, which was straining the legal system.

"The racism in Canberra, and in Australia in general, hasn't gotten any better," Mr Nickels said.

He said police were stopping Aboriginals in Canberra's streets and telling them to remove clothing as they were searched.

"There's no outstanding warrants for them and there's no justification," he said.

Another problem, Mr Nickels said, was Aboriginals being sent to the watch-house instead of the sobering-up shelter when they were apprehended drunk.

ACT Policing said it was unaware of any strip-search incidents and there were "strict requirements" to perform such a search.

It said it always prioritised use of the sobering-up shelter, but if the adult was disorderly or likely to injure themselves or others, they were taken into custody.

Mr Nickels said there was a lack of community interaction between police and Canberra's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Dr Hopkins said the criminal justice system was failing Indigenous people at every point they came into contact with it.

"This goes beyond arrest. It should cause us to question the nature of all interactions between the police and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to consider the relationship between police and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community," he said.

"Unless there is a strong and positive relationship, it is unlikely that we will see these trends reversed. Police and policing can be part of the solution, but we have to shift to a culture of policing with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community rather than policing of that community."

The government and police said they were working to increase the number of cautions issued.

Finbar O'Mallon is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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