What Defunding The Police Could Mean For First Nations People

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The Northern Territory government has committed to a record spend on policing in the 2022-2023 budget, which police minister Nicole Manison has called “the biggest police budget in Territory history.”

The budget increase is driven by a new $10.2 million allocation to support policing in regional and remote communities.

But the announcement came just two months after the acquittal of Northern Territory police officer Zachery Rolfe over the fatal shooting of Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker, and Walpiri elders from Kumanjayi Walker’s Yuendumu community say more police presence in the NT is a “direct threat.”

What Police Means To First Nation People

Robyn Newitt is a proud Tharawal and Yorta Yorta woman, working on Dja Dja Wurrung country as an expert in criminology. Her activism space is around defunding the police and prison abolition and to her police is a very sensitive issue and has been since colonisation began in 1788.

“If you look at the history of policing in this country the first police were convicts. They were the ones that were trying to maintain law and order and civilise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” Newitt said.

Newitt said the racialised targeted policies that are going to come through this year’s budget do nothing to address what’s happening up in the Northern Territory and that the issues are on a systemic level and in every aspect of the so-called criminal justice system.

On the other side, Northern Territory Police Minister Nicole Manison said the budget would “help the Northern Territory Police Fire and Emergency services to connect with Indigenous communities.”

But Walpiri elders from Kumanjayi Walker’s Yuendumu community say more police presence in remote NT is a “direct threat” to the community, and they are calling for karrinjarla muwajarri which means ceasefire, and for police to stop carrying guns in Indigenous communities.

They say the police budget would be better directed at self-determined Aboriginal governance.

Money Going Into Policing

When you look at how much money has been poured into policing, corrections and courts and how much budget money actually goes into health, education and housing, Newitt argued that’s “when you see the real issues come to surface.”

“The government doesn’t seem to bat an eyelid when they say they’re going to cut funding to education, health, housing or aged care. So why are they not so happy to do that with policing?” Newitt said.

“Why is it that we need to have more police, more legislation, more policies, more powers to police for the surveillance and over-policing of Aboriginal people? But then when Aboriginal people ask for help and call the police, they’re under-policed as victims.”

The 2022-23 NT budget will fund an additional 21 remote police officers and 30 Aboriginal liaison officer positions in regional and remote areas.

In 2016 the federal government allocated a huge $208 million dollars in funding over seven years until 2022 for policing in remote NT communities as part of the continued NT intervention.The current package of Intervention legislation and funding is set to expire in July.

Justice Reinvestment Instead Of Policing

There’s substantive data from around the country that proves justice reinvestment works, yet it still primarily relies on philanthropic support.

In other words, funding for self-determined governance hasn’t been provided on the same scale as police funding.

Newitt pointed out that defunding police is not about getting rid of them altogether and that it’s more about “redirecting those funds into Aboriginal community controlled organisations that actually address the issues within the community and know the issues in community, rather than penalising and punishing Aboriginal people.”

“It’s about trying to heal and provide a safer community for all,” she said.

She continued that self-determination is not about working together because it’s never it’s never been the case. The relationship that Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people have with the colonial government is a dictatorship and it’s built from top down.

“Whereas partnerships we need to be developed from grassroots level up. So it’s about reducing that interaction and experience with the criminal justice system,” she said.

Yuendumu elders have called for a national day of action on June 18 to protest against armed police in remote communities. And as Newitt put it, the way forward is sovereignty and First Nations people having a say in what happens in their own communities.

“We write these reports up and we have these papers that we produce, [but] the thing is it’s not always up to Aboriginal people to fix the problems within the criminal justice system because we’re not the problem. And that’s what sovereignty is about — just taking that power away, letting Aboriginal communities make those decisions that then impact on their communities.”