Liberal's 'racial profiling' call slapped down

Police should collect and publish data on the ethnicity of people who are stopped and questioned, according to the Liberal candidate for the plum seat of Brighton.

James Newbury – who will take over in the bayside seat from retiring MP Louise Asher at the next election – said Victorians were "incensed by media reports that a small minority of immigrants are committing some some of the worst crimes".

But Police Minister Lisa Neville dismissed the call, saying police were focused on arresting offenders regardless of their background.

"I don't think that it is in any way helpful that we divert the debate from offending to race or background," Ms Neville said.

"There is a real danger that we can send a message that is not necessarily accurate about the background and the type of offending that is occurring in our community."

In an opinion piece for Fairfax Media, Mr Newbury argues that the practice of collecting data on the country of birth for charged offenders should be extended to include information on the ethnicity of people who are stopped, questioned and interviewed.

"It beggars belief that we are now so politically correct we are worrying about how suspects feel answering factual-based questions," Mr Newbury writes. "The police should be collecting demographic data, including information on ethnicity, and they should publish it."

The controversial proposal – which critics fear would be tantamount to racial profiling – comes as both sides of politics grapple to tackle community concern about rising crime rates and offending by high-profile gangs such as Apex.

Mr Newbury, who worked for former premier Denis Napthine and a number of senior federal MPs, remains a controversial figure in Liberal circles.

His opinion piece has triggered anger inside the state parliamentary party, with some claiming the "hardline" policy proposal could damage the Liberal brand in Victoria.

State Liberals MPs were also furious that Mr Newbury did not criticise the Andrews Labor government over its handling of the politically sensitive law and order issue.

Mr Newbury claims accurate information is the best way for authorities to determine whether particular groups are committing certain crimes, and then develop strategies to stop them.

"Are African gangs responsible for some the most violent crimes?" he writes. "We don't know, because the police only collect country of birth data for charged offenders. What about all of the others yet to be charged – people who are stopped, questioned, or interviewed by police."

Ms Neville said police already had a good understanding of the backgrounds of people arrested, but this was not published.

She said most offenders, including those responsible for a rise in the crime rate, were born in Australia.

"Victoria Police's priority is arresting offenders regardless of race, regardless of background," Ms Neville said on Thursday. "The focus is on the offence, and arresting those offenders. It is not about race, it's not about gender, it is about ensuring the offenders are taken off the street."

The idea of collecting and publishing information on suspects' ethnicity is controversial. In September 2015, Victoria Police changed its guidelines to ban racial profiling.

It defines racial profiling as "making policing decisions that are not based on objective or reasonable justification, but on stereotypical assumptions about race, colour, language, ethnicity, ancestry or religion".

That followed a long-running court battle in which a group of young men from Flemington claimed they were regularly stopped and harassed by police officers for no legitimate reason. The case began in 2008 and was settled in the Federal Court in 2013.

While banning the use of racial profiling, police have raised the prospect of collecting ethnicity data to tackle any concerns that particular groups have been unfairly singled out.

In a statement to Fairfax Media, Victoria Police said officers where possible were already required to record physical descriptions and perceived ethnicity of alleged offenders, although this was subjective and for operational purposes only.

"To prevent and deter crime, Victoria Police focuses on behaviour," the statement said. "One of the core elements of criminal profiling is understanding how past behaviour can influence future behaviour. This has little to do with ethnicity."

Lauren Caulfield, of the Police Accountability Project, said she believed collecting information on the ethnicity of people questioned by police could help to track and prevent racial profiling by police.

Ms Caulfield said the crime statistics showed no evidence of higher rates of offending among ethnic groups.

"Definitely we wouldn't want to see that data used in ways that marginalise or pillorise a particular community," Ms Caulfield said. "But if that data is gathered effectively, that shouldn't be the outcome of it. It would actually have the opposite effect ... helping us to track on monitor instances of racial profiling by police."

The story Liberal's 'racial profiling' call slapped down first appeared on The Age.

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