Herald-Sun: (Vic) Police union says drunkenness laws threaten public safety

The Victorian police union has launched a scathing attack on the state government about changes to laws on public drunkenness.

The Police Association of Victoria has unleashed on the Andrews Government, saying planned changes to the law will hinder the ability of police officers to deal with drunk people who cause a threat to the community and themselves.

The new laws passed parliament in December last year following recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Wayne Gatt, Secretary of The Police Association of Victoria, told the Sunday Herald Sun there was a “dismissive approach” to facts and experiences provided by police to the working group which recommended the changes.

“Just as quickly as you remove the crime of public drunkenness, you need to introduce a system that allows police to deal with the types of public safety situations that we have always been called upon to deal with,” Mr Gatt said.

“Even if services were expanded broadly, there will always be circumstances where for reasons of public safety, police will still have an active role in managing intoxicated people within a custody type environment.”

Former Attorney-General Jill Hennessy in December last year said the current laws had “devastated too many families”.

But the union claims the government’s appointed Expert Reference Group (ERG), which consulted with Aboriginal communities, Victoria Police, health services and relevant experts, failed to listen to the concerns of frontline police members.

Mr Gatt said he believed the new laws will leave police without any powers to manage drunk people.

“Even if services were expanded broadly, there will always be circumstances where for reasons of public safety, police will still have an active role in managing intoxicated people within a custody type environment,” Mr Gatt said.

“The overwhelming majority of people we come across in these situations are ‘no’ people and have no capacity or means to look after themselves.”

Opposition police spokesman David Southwick said the plan did nothing to address the underlying causes of drug and alcohol abuse.

“With Labor repealing move on laws and now decriminalising public drunkenness, frontline officers have been stripped of the tools they need to keep the community safe and it should be little wonder why community confidence is at a decade low,” he said.

“Daniel Andrews half-baked legislation will only make things worse, not better and no change should proceed until a comprehensive plan is presented to the community and stakeholders alike.”

Despite the union’s stance, a Victoria Police spokeswoman said the force supported the government’s Bill to abolish the offence.

“We look forward to working with government on the details of the change,” she said.

A Victorian government spokeswoman said the legislation was a “clear stake in the ground”.

“These are important but complex reforms which we are working on in a staged and collaborative way,” she said.

“We are working with Aboriginal communities, health experts and other stakeholders – including police – to ensure the public health model provides the care and support required.”

FIGHTS, TEARS AND VOMIT

On a Friday night out in Melbourne, the Sunday Herald Sun witnessed people fighting on the street, drinking in parks and one person passed out on a footpath.

On the bustling corner of Russell and Little Bourke St, it was just after 9pm and the pavement outside a bottle shop was still wet from where a staffer had thrown water to clear vomit outside.

One man punched another in the face.

Just minutes earlier, families with young children had been walking past.

A girl who appeared to be a friend of the victim quickly stepped in between the two men, telling them not to fight on the street.

What looked to be a brief apology was exchanged and the two men went their separate ways.

On the other side of the Yarra, Chapel St was also a hive of activity.

Small groups of people gathered in a park, just around the corner from the notorious nightclub Love Machine, drinking bottles of alcohol.

A woman chatted on the phone as she emerged from the park with a friend, telling the caller “sorry I’m a bit drunk”. As they wait for their car, her friend keels over and begins to cry, crouching down on the pavement.

Meanwhile, a few hundred metres up a side street off Chapel St, a man lay face down outside the doorway of an allied health clinic.

A group of women dressed for a night out walked past in their heels as the man’s friends watched over their mate, who had passed out drunk metres from the shopping strip’s club precinct.

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