Plan to turn protection officers into police condemned by rights group

Giving greater powers to Protection Service Officers is unnecessary, inappropriate and potentially harmful, Liberty Victoria warned today.

The president of the human rights group, Jessie Taylor, added, “This is particularly so where there is little evidence as to the effectiveness of Protection Service Officers (PSOs) in fulfilling their functions and insufficient data to assess whether or not they have any impact at all upon crime rates.”

She said there is also concern about creating a new offence of obstructing or hindering a PSO. “As with the equivalent offence in relation to police officers, this offence places the burden of evidence on an accused person, who must offer a “reasonable excuse” for their actions.”

To that extent it reverses the onus of proof, normally the job of a prosecutor, making it easier to prosecute and more difficult to defend charges of this offence. “Liberty Victoria opposes the introduction of an offence in such terms,” she said.

PSOs are sworn officers of Victoria Police who have undergone 12 weeks of training at the Victoria Police Academy. They have limited police powers when on duty, essentially at metropolitan and major regional railway stations and associated areas. They have been deployed in Victoria since 2011. Their primary function 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 says there is insufficient data to assess the impact, if any, that PSOs have on crime rates.

“What is more, the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) reported 182 allegations of assault and excessive force and 71 of predatory behaviour by PSOs between 12 February 2012 and 31 December 2015.

“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,” she said.

A new bill seeks to expand the powers of PSOs so they could:  

  • search people and their vehicles if PSOs suspect the presence of drugs of dependence or psychoactive substances; 
  • in certain circumstances  randomly search people for weapons; 
  • apprehend children in respect of whom the Children’s Court has issued a search warrant for the purpose of having the child placed in emergency care; 
  • arrest people whose parole has been breached or cancelled; 
  • request the names and addresses of people suspected to be witnesses to the commission of indictable offences; and 
  • issue infringement notices for the supply of alcohol to minors.

Ms Taylor said that the bill seeks to grant PSOs powers which do not reflect the limited role they have been given. “For example, conducting a warrantless search on an individual or their vehicle because of a suspicion of drug possession may or may not, but does not necessarily, relate to ensuring the security of members of the public using public transport. In effect, by this and other measures the PSO Bill seeks to make PSOs de facto police officers.”