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The rising crime rate can be lowered if we put more police in effective roles

By Nicole Billante - posted Wednesday, 9 April 2003

There is one fact that always seems to shock people: murder aside, you are more at risk of becoming a victim of a serious crime in Australia than in the US. The mean streets of the States are not that mean after all. There are the rough spots such as the Bronx, but even they are safer than they used to be. During the 1990s the New York crime rate fell by 60 per cent. In Australia, our crime rate rose by 10 per cent.

That 10 per cent increase comes after a period of extraordinary rising crime. Since 1964 recorded crime has risen by 450 per cent. And this is serious crime: homicide, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, and motor vehicle theft. Trends of rising crime through the 1960s, 70, and 80s are not unique to Australia. What is unique to Australia, however, is that our crime rates continued to rise in the 1990s while all over the US, in the UK, and even across the Tasman, rates dropped.

It is time we took note of the fact that Australia's crime rate is out of pace with our Western counterparts and start looking at serious policies to combat it. We need to figure out where we've gone wrong and what we can do to change.


One of the starting points is to look at what has been happening with our police. Since 1964 police numbers in Australia have increased by only 37 per cent. This pales in comparison to the 450 per cent rise in crime. As a result the number of police per serious crime has fallen from 225 officers to just 60. And this doesn't even take into account the minor offences that police have to deal with every day.

Is it any wonder that our police are clearing fewer crimes than they were in 1964? Cleared crimes are down by about a third. Of the serious crimes mentioned above, 22 per cent were cleared in 2001 (although this was an improvement on the 1980s when only 15 per cent of crimes were cleared). Our failure to provide more police has meant that criminals have even less chance of getting caught than they did 40 years ago.

Increasing police numbers is one means of combatting the problem. This would not be cheap, but there may be higher costs to society if we ignore the strain on police effectiveness.

The New York Police Department increased their ranks by 10,000 officers, a 25 per cent addition during the 1990s. They also revamped their policing style. They used technology to identify crime hot spots, they put the police back on the beat, and they took note of the little things, policing incivility and disorder as well as serious crime.

Research has shown that this revamp was vital. While an increase in police numbers will generally result in a lower crime rate, using them effectively can have a further impact in lowering crime. More police are most cost effective when they are used correctly.

Police forces in Australia have started to take note of this research. In NSW for instance, the police, like their counterparts in New York, decided to target crime hotspots. Through 'City Safe' in 1998, and continuing with 'Operation Viking' last year, the police have been maintaining a highly visible presence on the streets. They have also increased their use of stop-and-search powers, in the search for weapons, and their move-on powers, to use against drug dealers and users in public places.


The police have been rewarded by an increase in clear-up rates since the low of the 1980s. However, our crime rate still remains high and our clear-up rates low. There is clearly more work to be done.

New York achieved a dramatic decrease in its crime rate and research has shown the changes in policing methods were a major reason for the drop. We have yet to achieve results anywhere near the level of the NYPD. This tells us that we need to be looking more at how to improve our policing and not be complacent with the changes thus far.

We should be listening when our police are telling us that they are understaffed. The statistics show that they are right - they need more help. But in return we must demand that our police use their resources effectively. Public debate must go beyond just a numbers game and focus on what our police should be doing with their extra numbers.

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This is based on the CIS's Issue Brief The Thinning Blue Line. Click here to download the full text (pdf, 94Kb).

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About the Author

Nicole Billante is a research assistant at the Center for Independent Studies.

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