Book Review: Conflict, politics and crime: Aboriginal communities and the police

Conflict, Politics and Crime: Aboriginal Communities and the Police by Chris Cunneen  (2001) Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.

When I first picked up Conflict, Politics and Crime I thought that Chris Cunneen had gone to a lot of trouble in writing a book for the smallest reading audience in the world – honest cops who wish to improve their understanding of their interaction with Indigenous Australians. On reflection, I realise that this book should have many more readers than this.  Cunneen meticulously documents the role of police, politicians, human service workers and white Australia interactions with the original owners of this land. Human service workers in particular need to understand the interrelated role they and the police played in the dispossession, the incarceration, the criminalisation, and the stolen generations. The history of the police on the frontiers, the history of the social engineers and the history of human service careers are interwoven. More importantly, if human service workers are to play any significant role in limiting the number of Indigenous children taken by white Australia in the next stolen generation they will find this book a valuable companion.

Cunneen sets out to examine commonly asserted views on policing in relation to what actually happened and is happening when police and Indigenous Australians come into contact.  Cunneen asserts that “liberal explanations of policing essentially see the police role as a neutral bureaucratic response to individuals who are suspected of violating the criminal law….The law itself is seen as an embodiment of the popular will formulated through the democratic processes of the parliamentary system and thus as an impartial and universal force for justice” (p.17). At one level this book is a negation of that comfortable suburban view of policing and justice.

Though it is a carefully reasoned analysis of the interrelationship between police and Aborigines, it is likely to be dismissed by those with a white blindfold view of white and Indigenous relationships as a simply rendition of a black armband account of our history.  Such a dismissal would say more about the powers of observation of the reader than those of the author of this book. For a considerable length of time Cunneen has been investigating the interacions between Indigenous people, police, deaths in custody, over-policing leading to inordinate levels of Indigenous incarceration and criminatisation yet under servicing of Indigenous victims. He is a careful observer and he presents an argument which deserves consideration.

Essentially Cunneen’s thesis is that the present disproportionate levels of incarceration of Indigenous people derive out of a combination of the colonial legacy – particularly the brutal role of police on the frontier, the police’s role in enforcing the ‘protection’ system (ch.3), the on- going determination of mainstream society to subordinate Indigenous rights, police culture, racism, the propensity of the police to use terror against Indigenous people and Aboriginal resistance to such impositions (pp. 42-43, 180-190).  Cunneen considers:

of foremost importance in understanding police violence against Indigenous people is the role of the police as a state institution with ‘legitimate’ access to the use of force. That institution has been called upon almost continuously to enforce economic dispossession and to police a racially discriminatory social and political divide. (p.109)

He sees an historical continuity in the role of police beginning with the invasion of Indigenous land and the subsequent dispossession to zero policing and mandatory sentencing of today. Cunneen’s analysis goes beyond single causal explanations and attempts to link historical, structural features of colonialisation with present day socio-economic marginalisation, systemic racism, politico-judicial policy, local policing practices and Indigenous resistance (p. 25).

Cunneen assembles the standard depressing statistics which show increasing rates of Indigenous incarceration, increasing numbers of Indigenous deaths in custody, inordinate arrest rates for Indigenous people, the disproportionate incarceration rates for young Indigenous people in juvenile facilities all of which he links to the failure of the police and other authorities to exercise their discretion to proceed on summons, to provide bail, to utilise diversionary options, or to seriously engage the Indigenous community in a justice process.

Cunneen, in Chapter 5, surveys a number of police killings of Indigenous people, the polices’ use of violence, terror, paramilitary forces and abuse of rights. In Chapter 7 he considers the gendered nature of policing in colonial and present day Indigenous society and attempts to account for the fact that, though most Indigenous populations are over policed, Aboriginal women who are subjected to domestic violence seldom find police willing to intervene on their behalf.

Chapter 8 examines the policing of contested space. Part of the discussion in this chapter will be familiar to youth workers who daily confront low income young people’s contests with police and private security guards over the use of public space in cities. However they may not be as aware of many of the public space questions which daily confront Indigenous Australians which he describes. Cunneen also looks at the cultural divide which separates Indigenous and mainstream Australia in terms of a spatial paradigm.

The attempts by police management to co-opt, incorporate, recruit and otherwise involve Indigenous people in their processes is reviewed in Chapters 9 and 10 revealing the failure of the police as agents for the State to come to a realistic understanding of Indigenous aspirations for justice. Throughout the book he points to a succession of Australian state, territory and federal governments’ failures to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Perhaps the reason these governments have found the task so daunting is as Cunneen notes “The Royal Commission formulated a specific recommendation on self-determination which provides the context for the other 338 recommendations (p.241).”


Reviewed by JT, not sure where published