Amid the recent controversy surrounding the Bohemian Beatfreaks Festival, the need for and purpose of “user-pays policing” has been called into question.
Should police charge festival organisers for their attendance?
The answer is no. Having events pay for police is not necessary, and the purpose of this model of law enforcement is confusing at best, suspicious at worst.
To explain, the NSW Police Force’s stated mission must be examined:
“We aim to protect the community and property by: preventing, detecting and investigating crime; monitoring and promoting road safety; maintaining social order; performing and coordinating emergency and rescue operations.”
It is true, the festival community has a reputation for drug use, and unfortunately, sexual assault at such large events is an issue. Therefore, it is reasonable that the police would want to have a presence at big events to allow them to detect and prevent such criminal activity.
However, that is not the issue here. The question remains: Should the events be required to pay for the police presence?
There is an argument to be made that if festivals areas are high-incident areas, and the venues themselves are attracting the criminal activity, those venues should pull their weight and supporting police costs.
But what constitutes a high-incident area?
There were 4287 assaults in Fortitude Valley between 2003 and 2013, more than one every single day. That’s not including the plethora of other crimes against person and property reported. Yet nightclubs are not charged for the extra police presence required in their vicinity.
On the NSW Police Force “User Pays Policing Services” page the purpose of this model is explained as follows:
“NSW Police Force provides most policing services free of charge to the general community but there are times when some services go beyond these responsibilities and clients are charged fees for the benefit of the services or goods provided.
These services, in turn, help our clients meet their business needs and their responsibilities to the community.”
Odd. The stated purpose is not to ensure public order in high-risk scenarios or to help alleviate the additional costs of providing large police presences. The purpose is to benefit the goods or service provided, to help “clients meet their business needs”.
That sweeping language is rather baffling when applied to the context of festivals and doofs, where the service provided is the establishment of a safe and stimulating environment that justifies the patron’s entry cost and the festival organiser’s business needs are clearly to make a profit.
Yet the imposition of prohibitively high policing costs and onerous demands (such as the requirement for extensive perimeter fencing) have detrimental effects on the event organiser’s ability to make a profit, which affects their ability to provide the aforementioned service, and in doing so jeopardises their business needs.
Consider as well another interesting piece of the NSW Police Force’s operational policy regarding special events:
“At all times officers are subject to the direction of the Commissioner. Officers never become the employees of the person or organisation paying for special service duties.”
This all paints quite a confusing picture of what exactly the function of user-pays policing is. It’s not to make high-crime areas safer, it’s not to bring down policing costs, and while user-pays police are not event employees, their stated purpose is to help businesses provide goods and services.
And finally, we must ask: Where do the invoices paid for user-pay police go?
Officers are charged out at up to $100 an hour. They receive overtime and head office claims the rest. There is, then, a financial incentive for police branches to gouge the prices to increase their revenue. Indeed, the original quote for police presence at Bohemian Beatfreaks this year was approx. $17 000. Yet it was changed to $160 000, only to be reduced to $105 000 via court order.
With a Police Integrity Commission finding that the user-pays policing model has “integrity hazards and corruption risks“, it’s reasonable to suggest there are real risks that the pricing of these services will be politicised by the police or that this type of policing could be used as a political tool by ruling parties.
Both of which are unacceptable in a free democracy.
If the purpose is to raise revenues, then the risks of corruption are too significant.
If the purpose of user-pays policing is to support the businesses of festival organisers, then, as we have seen in the Bohemian Beatfreaks fiasco, the mission is failing.