Software, hardware, wetware

Reaction to 60 Minutes 19/04/2009 - Riot Squad Segment

Watching 60 Minutes is a mistake, sometimes. Other times, it manages to make me think. Of late, it’s almost always sensationalist tripe.

Tonight’s major story was what I would call a fluffy PR piece on the Riot Squad up in Sydney. Their job - at least according to 60 Minutes - is to ‘keep the streets safe’ from ‘increasing street violence’ by employing ‘aggressive tactical behaviours’. My first problem with the 60 Minutes piece is the claim of increased street violence without some sort of backup.


According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research’s NSW Recorded Crime Statistics Annual Report 2008, rates of violent crime excluding robbery reported in NSW have increased from 70 incidents per 100,000 population around 1994 to around 140 incidents per 100,000 population in 2008 (with peaks around January, doubtless the New Years Eve period). These do not include rates of robbery, which change the picture a bit - and do include domestic violence, so it’s not clear how much of this is ‘street crime’.

A related document at the same site, ‘An update of long-term trends in property and violent crime in New South Wales: 1990-2008’, shows that rates of murder have decreased while rates of assault have increased; again the report does not differentiate between on- and off-street crime. The report does clarify that the rate of assaults has remained statistically stable since 2000.

However, the issue is not simple. In 1994, the NSW Police Force’s Computerised Operational Policing System (COPS) was introduced. Rates of reported crime rapidly increase after this point, and we might assume that the increase in reported crime is due to the reduction in paperwork and enhanced ease of reporting of incidents. I won’t state this as fact - I lack sufficient data to support this assertion - but some of the graphs in the Update of Long-Term Trends in Property and Violent Crime in NSW 1990-2008 report are specifically marked with the date that COPS was introduced. I don’t think it’s a big stretch.

So - are rates of violent crime in Sydney increasing, 60 Minutes? Based on my hour of research, I’m going to argue that you need to back that one up with some hard data, as the reports I’m looking at do not support that claim.

This smacks of media sensationalism to me. 60 Minutes seemed to take great efforts to ensure that we understood that rates of crime are increasing, and that the streets are dangerous, every night sees epic brawls and fights - they had footage of the Riot Squad walking aroudn Hyde Park which they described as ‘armageddon’; individuals seen in the footage were, for the most part, simply walking away from the area. I suspect that it was footage of the end of a live music event, and that it was probably a long way from ‘armageddon’.

Balanced and fair reporting, plz.


The segment engendered certain feelings in me which I can only describe as ‘being oppressed’ - amusing, given that I’ve never been involved in a street fight and haven’t thrown a punch since year 10. The implication throughout was that the Riot Police were entirely justified in using strong-arm tactics to subdue street violence; the narrator went so far as to describe them as ‘Sydney’s stormtroopers’. I’m not sure that term implies what you think it implies, Mr 60 Minutes.

At one point, one of the female officers was shown talking to a person on the street (from the tone, one could assume the person being spoken to was in a bit of trouble). Two other males stood behind her, and were obviously giving her lip. Clearly, this is a stupid thing to do to a police officer. Instantly, one of the male officers charged forward and barelled the two men over and ordered them to leave the area.

Whoah. Wait a minute there. A police officer assaulted two apparent idiots just for mouthing off? That seems like an excessive response. Physical use of force can have very dangerous consequences. I’ve known people who have died from something as simple as falling over and hitting their head. Are we sure we want police using physical force to deter people and get them to move along?

Admittedly, the segment I’m talking about - like much of the footage - was taken out of context. Maybe those two had been involved in an incident and the police were acting on the suspicion that these two idiots were about to get violent. The two idiots clearly should not have been addressing a police officer in anything but polite terms (it’s just common sense). On the flip side, maybe they were just asking the guy the officer was talking to if he was okay? We never really get to see. The story is never as simple and clear-cut as the media would like us to believe.

At one point, one of the officers shouts at the cameraman to ‘turn that camera off now’. Obviously, I know very little of the situation they were facing at the time, but asking a member of the media to turn off a camera worries me. Are there situations where a camera should be turned off when police are interacting with the public, in a public location? Was the officer protecting an underage offender’s identity by having the camera turned off? Or was the camera turned off to shield the police from prosecution while they were roughing someone up? I don’t know, but this tiny little grab of footage was probably the most worrying for me - especially as the cameraman instantly complied.

Reporting of negative reactions to the Riot Squad was weak; a single man protesting that they are inflammatory and cause as much violent crime as they solve. I won’t say that he was right - he could very well have been nothing but a blowhard - but why was there only one voice on this issue? Where was the examination of the impact of the Riot Squad on violent crime in inner city Sydney?

I found the tone of the whole segment deeply troubling. The constant implication that anyone out drinking might be a troublemaker. The focus on youth, as if no-one else binge drinks or gets violent - setting ‘young adults’ up as straw-man villains. Few hard questions were asked about the Riot Squad’s strong-arm tactics, which to me implied a tacit understanding that law enforcement should be able to do whatever is necessary to stop crime - that the police are always the good guys, and always beyond reproach.

The truth is so much more complex. I don’t doubt that the Riot Squad do good work and are probably nowhere near as unthinking as the 60 Minutes segment made them out to be, but the overall tone of the segment worries me. At every turn, we’re being told that things are getting worse, that harder measures need to be taken. Laws are tightened and clamped and we’re all told we should feel a little bit safer with every piece of legislation that gets passed.

I don’t feel safer. Quite the opposite. And journalists not asking hard questions worries me.

(But what am I expecting from 60 Minutes!?)