On the blog: Keeping a growing Canberra safe in a challenging new era

Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan is ACT Policing's Chief Police Officer. He has extensive operational and investigative policing experience from more than 30 years with the Australian Federal Police.


This is my first month as Chief Police Officer for the ACT. When I joined ACT Policing more than 30 years ago as a young fresh-faced recruit, I never dreamed that one day I would be appointed the Chief Police Officer for the ACT.  For the first 15 years of my policing career I served the ACT Community in general duties policing and investigative roles, before moving to ACT National Headquarters where I gained extensive experience in National and International policing. I am passionate about serving the Canberra community.

As Australia’s capital, we are a small jurisdiction that has always shown we can be innovative and creative. While a portion of our population will always be transient, Canberra is growing with young people and families choosing to stay because of what makes us and this place special. For me, it’s about the respect we have for each other. It’s how Canberra combines its place as the seat of federal government and as its own Territory. But more importantly it’s how we acknowledge Canberra’s history as Ngunnawal land, celebrate our diversity, chose to help those disadvantaged and provide equality for all.

I’m excited to be back serving my local community at a time when the community is facing unprecedented challenges. I can see many things are different, and I’m engaged and ready to learn from a very hardworking, dedicated police force that puts its community first. 

But for all that’s changed, there is much that has stayed the same. I talk now about the very heart of policing, and where my commitment and drive to serve my officers and the broader community is. Sir Robert Peel, often known as the father of modern policing, established a list of policing principles that remain as relevant and crucial now as they were in 1829.

One of Sir Robert’s core ideas is preventing crime, not catching criminals. He says an effective police force does not have high arrest statistics, its community has low crime rates. This is why reducing recidivism is one of my key priorities. It frustrates me that there are still people committing crimes now that I knew back in the 1990s. The cycle of arresting the same people multiple times for the same crimes has to be tackled. We need to do better to address the root cause of why repeat offenders remain in our justice system and prison because the safety of the entire community must be at front of mind.

Sir Robert also notes the key to preventing crime is earning public support – ACT Policing must work hard to maintain the public’s support. Whole-of-government partnerships and collaboration is very important to me. As Canberra grows, infrastructure, technology, and demographic shifts is leading to an increased complexity and diversity of crime. We must continue to evolve our service with inter-agency support, reducing crime and enabling us to respond to people who need the greatest support.

In the past decade, the ACT saw a 17.4% increase in mental health incidents and an increase of 46.5% in family violence related assaults. We will always be there to help our community, but we must consider how we can be proactive and work collaboratively to reduce the reoccurrence or impact of these incidents.

For example, ACT Policing, in collaboration with ACT Health and the ACT Ambulance Service recently expanded its PACER (Police, Ambulance and Clinician Early Response) program to continue through to November 2020. This proof-of-concept is a first for the ACT region. It’s a tri-care service where police, paramedics and mental health physicians work collaboratively to attend incidents. The proof-of-concept has been a big success, and has meant that mental health incidents are dealt with in the most discreet and effective way possible. Since it began in December, the team has attended on average five mental health cases per shift and 95% of patients seen face-to-face or contacted are being diverted away from hospital placement that would have ordinarily have been the case.

When we consider that police should be a last resort, in many cases the people we interact with could be better supported by another service. The incidents that police attend can be better managed through proactive, early-intervention methods as opposed to responsive ones. This is particularly important for the disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our community and I’m looking forward to working with the ACT Government to better support these people.

We can’t do what we do without hearing and listening to our community. In the next few months, we will move to modernise how the community reports crime. Engaging with police has traditionally been face-to-face and over the phone but we’re expanding the options available. We will have new reporting forms on our website, so you can report a crime right from your mobile phone or when it is most convenient for you.

This is linked to our transition to a new Police Services Model which puts our officers and the community at its centre. In short, it’s a shift from a traditional response model of policing to one that has a proactive and preventative focus. Anyone can see that the time is right for ACT Policing to strengthen partnerships with government and other agencies to proactively prevent crime. Technology continues to free up resources and better equip front-line response, and innovation more broadly is helping everyone plan more strategically (especially in the COVID-19 environment).

In the next few months, we will also welcome a new specialist intelligence team to support and provide information to our police officers on the ground. When Canberrans send us tip-offs, this team will pull this information together to ensure we’re prioritising the right resources to the right places that prevent repeat calls for service to the same locations and people.

While there is a benefit for the community, we’re also making these changes for our officers. Another one of my key priorities is the mental health and wellbeing of all ACT Policing members. Unfortunately, police see horrific scenes every day and support traumatised victims at their time of need. Effective support must be in place so ACT Policing can effectively serve the ACT community. 

Ultimately, it is my goal that with new ways of working together we will modernise ACT Policing and prepare us for the coming years, lead to an overall reduction in recidivist crime in our city and provide a better service for our Canberra community whom we all care about.

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