Liberty Victoria is opposed to the proposed expansion of the powers of Protection Services Officers (PSOs) through the measures set out in the Justice Legislation Amendment (Protective Services Officers and Other Matters) Bill 2017.
PSOs are sworn officers of Victoria Police who have undergone 12 weeks of training at the Victoria Police Academy upon recruitment. They are granted a limited range of police powers when on duty in ‘designated places’— essentially metropolitan and major regional railway stations and associated areas. They have been deployed in Victoria since 2011. Their primary function (as described by Minister for Police Lisa Neville MP in the Second Reading Speech for the PSO Bill) is to provide a ‘visible presence… in the community – and notably on public transport – to improve feelings of safety and to prevent and detect crime’. The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office has acknowledged there is insufficient data to assess the impact, if any, that PSOs have on crime rates.
PSOs already have a range of powers associated with their function, including certain powers of arrest and search, to obtain personal information as well as the power to issue fines for public order and public transport offences. The PSO Bill seeks to substantially expand those powers.
In Liberty Victoria’s view, the PSO Bill seeks to grant PSOs powers which do not reflect the confined role they have been given.
Powers which impinge the fundamental rights of individuals must be given, and used, sparingly and judiciously. This is why we have entrusted Victoria Police officers, to the exclusion of others, with such powers.
However, PSOs are not ordinary police officers. They serve a specified and attenuated role and, notably, do not receive the same amount of training as ordinary police officers. They also do not have the benefit of working, as closely as ordinary police officers do, with senior and experienced members of Victoria Police.
It is not suggested that PSOs should be indiscriminately maligned. Nonetheless an IBAC report - Transit Protective Services Officers: An exploration of corruption and misconduct risks (Dec 2016) - raised concerns about PSOs’ use of existing powers and highlighted the risk involved in giving police powers to a workforce other than police officers. In light of such serious and recent concerns, giving PSOs substantial new powers is in Liberty Victoria’s view unnecessary, inappropriate and potentially harmful. This is particularly so where there is little evidence as to the effectiveness of PSOs in fulfilling their functions and insufficient data to assess whether or not they have any impact at all upon crime rates.
A further concern is raised by the creation of a new offence for obstructing or hindering a PSO. As with the equivalent offence in relation to police officers, this offence places an evidential burden on the accused to offer a ‘reasonable excuse’ for their actions. To this extent it reverses the onus of proof (which would ordinarily fall exclusively on the prosecution). This makes it easier to prosecute and more difficult to defend charges of this offence. Liberty Victoria opposes the introduction of an offence in such terms.