There are a number of aspects to the role of police in democratic societies such as Australia. Generally, the police role is to maintain public order, protect life and property, enforce the law, investigate offences and to put evidence of the offence before the court.
Reporting to Police
Across Australia, the police operate 24 hours a day and may be the first agency people contact after a crime incident. Most people who have experienced a property crime do call police. Others, especially those who have experienced a personal crime like sexual assault, domestic violence or child abuse may find it a difficult thing to do.
Peoples’ access to police may also be affected by their location in a regional or remote area. Or access may be affected by other problems such as fear of reprisal, a bad past experience with police, or a feeling that they can’t do anything.
The 2005 ABS report on Recorded Crime shows that the proportion of victims that reported the most recent incident to police varied depending on the type of offence.
- 74% for household victims of break-in
- 31% for household victims of attempted break-in
- 90% for household victims of motor vehicle theft
- 38% for victims of robbery
- 31% for victims of assault
Common reasons given for not reporting the most recent break-in to police included: that there was nothing the police could do (31%), and that the incident was too trivial or unimportant (20%). See http://www.abs.gov.au
Some people, like children, may not be able to make the decision themselves whether to report an incident to police. Sometimes the person who makes the report will be another family member or a neighbour. It may also be a social worker or medical person. Usually, however, the decision to report to police will be yours.
People have a range of reasons for reporting crime to police if they are the victim. If it is a property crime like a stolen motor vehicle, the victim is likely to need a police report number for insurance purposes. Sometimes people report because they would like a reasonable attempt made by authorities to catch the offender and/or to return property. Sometimes people feel it is their civic duty to report. Some sexual assault victims, for example, say that they reported because they don’t want anyone else to experience what happened to them. Sometimes victims and their families report because they say they would like “justice”.
What Can Police Do?
What police can do if you report a crime to them will depend upon a number of factors. Things like the nature of the offence, how long after the incident you are reporting, what evidence other than your statement there may be, and whether it is within their powers to do anything. You can:
- Ask police to make a record of your allegation or problem.
- Provide you with information about relevant services.
- Take a formal written statement if the circumstances warrant it.
- Take action and provide advice in relation to crime prevention and personal safety.
- Take reasonable steps to investigate an allegation of an offence where the circumstances warrant it.
- Make a decision on whether to take action and what type of action if an offence has been identified.
Reporting personal crimes such as assault or sexual assault can also mean that a victim may have forensic evidence taken such as photographs. Or they may be asked to have a medical examination. Victims can ask for a support person to be present at these times. This could be a worker from a service or a friend.
Some police services have specialist officers to assist victims and their families. If you have special needs or feel you need to talk with a specialist about what has happened to you, just ask. Police should generally be able to provide you with a reference number for the report that you have made. If you have made a written statement you are generally entitled to receive a copy.
Do I need legal advice before reporting to police? If you are the victim of crime and wish to report it there is generally no reason for you to seek legal advice or representation. However, many States and Territories provide free legal advice helplines that you could call.
Some TV shows picture police as being able to collect evidence quickly; to search and seize persons and premises easily; to locate, detain and question people without too many barriers; and to “get results” fast. While this can happen, reality is usually very different.
Investigations can be quick but they can also take a lot of time. Sometimes it can take years to track down suspects and to gather sufficient evidence to charge. In the vast majority of circumstances, police must have specific authority to question people or to enter premises to search them.
In most States and Territories, police have policies and procedures to keep victims of crime informed of the progress of investigations, to advise them when a suspect has been identified, and to advise victims if and when a person is charged.
Police have authority to take different kinds of action. This will depend upon the circumstances. A key threshold question for police will be if there is an identifiable offence and if there is sufficient evidence to charge a person in relation to that offence. After this, then police will decide whether to arrest, summons or caution a person in relation to the offence.
If the alleged offender is a juvenile it is common that police are required by law to consider certain things than if the alleged offender was an adult. Certainly there are more restrictions on a victim’s access to information if the offender is juvenile.
Each State and Territory will have slightly different laws and different approaches to some offences in some areas.
Police are the central agency in Australia with the authority to take certain action to protect people and property. However, that authority is actually quite limited and each State and Territory will be different. In general police may be able to:
Seek restrictions to person’s bail.
- Apply for a personal protection order in some circumstances.
- Undertake certain protective actions (such as an alert) for persons or places requiring protection where the circumstances warrant it.
- Provide advice, assistance and referral on crime prevention.