Aboriginal drivers in WA more likely to get fines from police officers than traffic cameras | Australia news


Senior police in Western Australia were warned 12 months ago of a “clearly disturbing” trend of Aboriginal drivers being overrepresented in police-initiated traffic stops.

The briefing note from the mothballed evidence-based policing unit, obtained under freedom of information laws by Guardian Australia, found that Aboriginal drivers received 3.2 times more fines from being pulled over by police than non-Aboriginal drivers. But when tickets were issued by traffic cameras, Aboriginal drivers received slightly fewer penalties on average than non-Aboriginal drivers.


The five-year analysis included almost four million drivers, or 69% of all drivers in WA, and showed a “notable ethnic disparity” in the issuing of traffic fines.

However, police said they had not acted on the report because decisions on what actions would be taken to reduce Aboriginal incarceration were a matter for cabinet.

On average, the report found, Aboriginal drivers in WA receive 1.75 times more penalty units over their lifetime of driving than non-Aboriginal drivers. That is about $1,260 more in fines for Aboriginal drivers, “almost entirely driven by police-initiated, on-the-spot infringements”.

It also found Aboriginal drivers were carrying 6.2 times more unpaid fines — amounting to a debt of $2,327.

Until last year, police in Western Australia had the power to arrest and jail people for unpaid court fines – and accumulated traffic offences can often end up in court. Drivers with unpaid fines cannot renew their licence, and repeatedly driving unlicensed can result in jail time.

“These differences are large enough to suggest an uncomfortable distinction between automated camera and police-initiated traffic enforcement, with this distinction heavily correlated with Aboriginality,” the report by WA Police’s then director of criminology, Dr Geoffrey Barnes, said.

The final report was dated 13 February 2019, and recommended further investigation of the “clearly disturbing” trend, concluding: “These findings are consistent with a notable ethnic disparity in police-initiated traffic enforcement, but by no means provide conclusive evidence that deliberate bias exists.”

Barnes, who joined WA Police as its first in-house criminologist in May 2017, said the research was unique because traffic cameras provided a control group.

“We know that automated traffic enforcement doesn’t detect the difference between the two ethnic groups,” he told Guardian Australia. “Therefore, if we’re only finding it in stops, well that that is an indication that there’s a discretionary element going on … Even if it’s not racism, we don’t want this pattern to exist.”

Barnes said the evidence-based policing unit began to lose resources in December 2018, when the deputy commissioner Stephen Brown, who established the unit, left the force. By the time Barnes left WA Police, on 16 January this year, he said he was effectively the only one left. The only person who tried to get traction on his reports was his boss, the assistant commissioner Craig Ward.

Ward commissioned the report and presented it to a working group on Aboriginal wellbeing, set up to report to cabinet on the McGowan government’s pledge to reduce the number of Aboriginal people in custody.

He told Guardian Australia that the decision to respond to the report would be a matter for cabinet and that WA police no longer had the staff to do the follow-up research that Barnes recommend.

“That’s not with any intention to cover it up,” Ward said. “I think it’s frankly a fantastic report and asks us the kind of questions we need to face … [but] it was about trying to get the best outcome and the best audience at government level to receive this so we could have a whole-of-government outcome.”

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Dennis Eggington, the chief executive of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALSWA), said the report, shown to him by Guardian Australia, contained “no surprises, no shocks,” but he was disappointed it had not been acted on.

“It just confirms what we as Aboriginal people know and are subjected to,” he said. “I certainly now will be taking the issue up with our police commissioner here in WA to see whether or not we can all work together with the information there to help make things better.”

Police in Australia have the power to stop any driver, at any time, to conduct a random breath test, even if they can’t see any offences occurring. It’s a discretionary power, and one Eggington said every Aboriginal person he knows has experienced.

“It happens all the time,” he said. “It happens personally to me, it’s happened personally to all my family members.”

Eggington said WA police had problems with racism, both systemic and personal, but that the relationship between ALSWA and police had improved.

“All colonial institutions have a problem with systemic racism,” he said.

Ward said the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in police-led infringements could be due to a lack of traffic cameras in regional areas, meaning most infringements were issued directly by police. He also said that when police pulled someone over they could issue fines for more than one thing.

“[If] it’s a three-car family from the western suburbs, and you’re driving along in your Land Cruiser and you’re the only person in the car speeding because you can and that’s your car, it stops there,” Ward said. “If you’re driving from [the remote Pilbara community of] Jigalong to Newman and you have pulled over and there’s 10 people in the car, and it’s unroadworthy, and you haven’t got a licence and the car’s not registered, that’s a different outcome.”

Barnes said a number of sworn police officers described similar scenarios in which extra demerit points might be accumulated by Aboriginal drivers.

“Believe me I heard all kinds of assumptive arguments when I wrote this,” he said. “But in the end we have this aggregate trend.”

Aboriginal drivers in regional areas received 4.2 times more penalty units from police stops than non-Indigenous drivers, and 41% of all traffic infringements to Aboriginal drivers were issued in regional areas, the report found.

The biggest disparity was in the issuing of infringements for not wearing a seatbelt, where Aboriginal drivers received 19.2 times the number of fines.

Asked whether the report showed evidence of structural racism in WA police, Ward said that was “certainly something that I thought initially”.

But he said he then concluded the disparity was due to government policies for police to target certain types of offences. “Police officers will pretty much follow instructions,” he said.

WA police has, in recent years, made efforts to repair its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, starting with an apology from the commissioner, Chris Dawson, for “past wrongful actions”, issuing Aboriginal service medals to police officers and staff, and a focus on recruiting Aboriginal cadets.

Ward said WA police had an “internal communication journey to go on to make sure everyone is on board” with that agenda.

“What we do not want to do, as I said, is make a kneejerk response to this, walk around accusing people of unconscious bias or whatever it may be that may set our agenda backwards,” he said.



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