The New South Wales police have been accused of using “oppressive” and potentially unlawful tactics on subjects of a secretive blacklist disproportionately used to target young Indigenous people.
Documents released under a parliamentary order have for the first time revealed how police in the state are instructed to use the suspect target management plan, or STMP, an opaque tool previously found to have utilised “unreasonable” and “unjust” tactics against its targets.
A form of “preventive policing” used to monitor repeat offenders and prevent further crime being committed, the STMP has consistently been found to disproportionately target young Indigenous people.
As recently as November last year, police told a NSW budget estimates hearing that of the 73 children under the age of 16 subject to an STMP, 64% were Indigenous. The one child under the age of 14 on a STMP at the time was also Indigenous.
A total of 209 children were subject to the policy, 57% of whom were Indigenous.
At the most recent census, 3.2% of the national population identified as Indigenous.
The documents detail what lawyers from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre say are potentially unlawful tactics, including encouraging officers to issue fines and defect notices to targets of the policy because “restricting access to vehicles limits offending behaviour”.
They also reveal that police are encouraged to “attempt to cultivate family members” of targets “as sources” by “attending and re-attending their homes”.
And while targets of the policy are meant to be selected based on what’s known as a crime severity index, police have discretion on who to place on the list, something PIAC argued “leaves the process open to bias”.
“We’ve known for decades that exposing children to repeated, invasive interactions with police is harmful,” PIAC’s principal solicitor Camilla Pandolfini said.
“We need to be diverting young people from the criminal justice system if we want better outcomes, not increasing their interaction with it.”
While the STMP has existed for more than two decades, the documents cover its most recent iteration, released after a two-year investigation by the NSW police watchdog criticised the use of the previous policy.
The Law Enforcement Conduct Commission’s (LECC) interim report in 2020 found the STMP often involved “intrusive” policing tactics, “unreasonable surveillance” and “harassment” that could increase young people’s risk of entering the justice system.
“Monitoring STMP targets as recommended in the [STMP] policy can have the effect of being intrusive and disruptive to a young person’s day-to-day existence,” it said at the time.
“These interactions do not appear to be diversionary in nature, and might serve to increase the likelihood that a child or young person will be charged and thereby drawn into the criminal justice system.”
The NSW police responded to the criticism by rejigging the STMP policy. Where once people placed on an STMP were never told they were subject to the extra surveillance, police are now required to inform subjects.
The new STMP also increased the focus on diversionary policing tactics for children, and introduced a three-month review period for subjects “to ensure a target’s ongoing suitability for STMP”.
In his introduction to the updated policy, known as STMP III, the former NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller wrote that it was aimed at ensuring targeting was “tailored, transparent and robust”.
The STMP uses three “toolkits” for police – youth, prevention and disruption – to, as a police spokesperson told the Guardian in a statement “ensure the NSW police force is targeting the right people with the most appropriate strategy to reduce violence and crime in the community”.
“All three modules incorporate comprehensive targeting strategies for all police involved in STMP III. The youth toolkit was created after consultation with Youth Command, and in consultation with the LECC,” the spokesperson said.
But critics argue the policy still uses “oppressive” policing practices. For example, a copy of the so-called STMP “disruption toolkit” encourages officers to use the Road Transport Act by issuing traffic fines or defect notices.
“Removal of driver’s licence restricts lawful movement of offenders,” the policy says.
The same toolkit also encourages officers to take photographs of targets in public, a tactic used “for intelligence purposes, for instance to document tattoos” but also to allow officers to “run through facial recognition”.
Officers are also told to “build rapport and trust” with the family members of STMP targets in a bid to cultivate them “as sources”.
Police though say that those measures are used to target adult offenders, among who Indigenous people are still over represented – 53% of adults on an STMP in 2021 were Indigenous.
“When dealing with young people, the focus of the NSW Police Force will remain prevention, intervention and diversion, which starts with positive targeting and engagement programs,” the spokesperson said.
Two years on from the release of its interim report, the LECC is yet to release its final verdict on the STMP.
But PIAC points to the continued overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians on the list as evidence that it should be discontinued.
“We urge the NSW government to cease use of the STMP against children and ensure it isn’t used disproportionately against First Nations people,” Pandolfini said.
“How much longer can we keep doing the same things and expect a different result?”