OPINION: The power of good PR. How the police maintain top spot on trust survey.

Source: Victoria Police Facebook Page

Alex McKinnon questions how the police have maintained their high ranking in public trust surveys despite police brutality and racism scandals dominating the headlines.

Footage that has emerged in the past 48hrs of Victoria Police officers beating, pepper spraying and tormenting detained civilians, has raised serious questions about police accountability. The scandal has strengthened calls for police complaints to be investigated by an independent external body, rather than police themselves, and further tarnished the image of a police force overwhelmed by controversy in recent months. Acting commissioner Luke Cornelius admitted the footage had caused “a diminution in confidence in our community” toward the police.

In February, the head of Victoria Police’s ethical standards body, Brett Guerin, resigned after it was revealed he regularly made extremely racist, misogynist and violent posts from anonymous social media accounts.

In February, an Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission inquiry into police corruption and misconduct heard of internal investigations clearing officers despite overwhelming evidence; accusers being charged with criminal offences that go away when the complaint is dropped; and people not bothering to file complaints because they assumed the system would protect their harasser.

But despite regular stories of officers abusing their power, and of police forces shielding their own from scrutiny, federal and state police agencies are consistently rated as the most trusted institutions in Australian society, even as trust in parliaments, political parties, media outlets and religious organisations has declined.

The head of Victoria Police’s ethical standards body, Brett Guerin, resigned after it was revealed he regularly made extremely racist, misogynist and violent social media posts

With the exception of non-Anglo migrant communities, Indigenous people, young people, people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence and other marginalised groups, police keep their squeaky-clean image with most of the public, despite police brutality and racism scandals dominating the headlines. How can this be?

Professor Rick Sarre from the University of South Australia believes it has much to do with how far police services have come when dealing with issues of corruption and discrimination since the days of the Fitzgerald inquiry in Queensland and the criminal escapades of Roger Rogerson in Sydney.

“Back in the 1980s, they were troglodytes. There was a culture of police saying ‘we are above the law, we can get away with it’. Fortunately that mindset has gone,” Sarre says. “You can’t deny that discrimination occurs, but police have attempted to root out poor behaviour and make the culture better.”

Sarre notes that the push to recruit officers from a wider range of backgrounds has helped break down the culture of deference and blind obedience that once existed in Australian police forces.

“In the old days, you rose to the top because you joined as a 17-year-old and licked all the right boots,” Sarre says. “These days, there’s no one in senior command who hasn’t done some form of higher education study. They’re no longer a group of people born into a culture who were told what to do and then demanded the same of their underlings.”

Highway Patrol is produced in conjunction with Victoria Police, which retains veto rights over any footage Channel 7 films

Police forces have also gotten far more sophisticated at managing their public image. Popular reality TV shows like Channel 7’s Highway Patrol have the viewer “ride along” with cops as they deal with members of the public. While the fly-on-the-wall style of such shows is meant to make what’s unfolding onscreen seem authentic, events are inevitably presented from the police perspective. Officers are always calm, reasonable and respectful in their dealings with civilians, who are usually belligerent, abusive or violent. Unsurprisingly, Highway Patrol is produced in conjunction with Victoria Police, which retains veto rights over any footage Channel 7 films and reviews episodes before they go to air.

Police social media accounts also function as de facto PR campaigns. A quick look at the photo section on the Victoria Police Facebook Page shows a stream of police puppies, kids dressed as police, police plush toys and even a sunset at a local police station. The meme-heavy output of the Queensland Police Service’s Facebook and Twitter pages has gifted them endless free advertising from media outlets, and distracted from how police social media often goes suspiciously quiet when officers are caught out behaving badly.

This sanitised version of how police conduct themselves is often lampooned in media produced by non-Anglo Australians. In SBS’ Fat Pizza and Housos series, NSW Police are racist, lazy and stupid, more concerned with getting half-price chips from Red Rooster than doing their jobs. YouTube comedy duo Theo and Nathan Saidden, best known for their ‘Superwog’ webseries, routinely portray police as violent, bigoted thugs, eager for any opportunity to brutalise young men of colour.

In fairness, on-the-ground police efforts have done much to build (or rebuild) trust with marginalised communities. Coffee with a Cop, a community outreach program started by Fairfield police, has been so successful at breaking down barriers between police and migrant communities it has been rolled out statewide, with plans to go national. 

The concept of “community policing”, which treats civilians as partners rather than potential suspects, has led to a greater effort to recruit ethnically and religiously diverse officers, while sporting and after-school programs have built bridges between police and at-risk young people. As Victoria Police grapples with how to rebuild shattered public trust, those face-to-face efforts will be more important than ever.

Alex McKinnon is morning editor of The Saturday Paper.