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Curbing a community's drinking: a police sergeant's perspective

Alcohol fuelled fighting.

Last week saw the launch of the findings from the Alcohol Action in Rural Communities (AARC) project at NSW State Parliament House. The project involved 20 NSW towns, half of which implemented community-led interventions designed to minimise alcohol-related problems (violence, crime etc), and 10 of which were ‘controls’ and did not receive any interventions.

Corowa on NSW’s southern border was among the towns to receive the interventions. Here, Corowa’s Sergeant Andrew Robertson shares a police perspective of dealing with alcohol-related problems, and why he was enthusiastic about the AARC project.

Corowa is a small community of just over 5,500. It has five hotels in the main street, three bottle shops and a supermarket outlet selling alcohol. We have a relatively elderly population yet alcohol related crimes and other harms are not uncommon.

As police, we are the first to deal with alcohol-related crime and the first to see the terrible harm it can do. I strongly supported the AARC approach of involving different community groups to address the fall-out from too much alcohol. I believe alcohol harm is a community problem, not just a police problem.

Countless hours can be taken up by police in dealing with offenders who are affected by alcohol and committing offences. There is time spent talking to employees, security and obtaining witness and victim statements; possibly processing a crime scene to obtain evidence; then dealing with the offender, and  processing them back at the station. We then have to prepare for court appearance three weeks later and prepare a brief if a plea of ‘not guilty’ is entered. All this time and these resources could be utilised elsewhere if we were not constantly dealing with alcohol-related crime.

As a member of the Police Force I welcomed AARC’s attempts to try and implement multiple community-led strategies to reduce alcohol-related crime. I was involved most with a strategy that used our own police incident data to identify weekends during the year that have been a problem in Corowa in the past for whatever reason.  Data incident research identified the worst weekends for alcohol-related crime. I was occasionally surprised by the weekends that the researchers identified as high risk – they weren't always the ones we would have picked. But lead AARC researcher A/Prof Anthony Shakeshaft and his team seemed to have a knack of picking the ones which did turn out to be extremely busy.

Armed with the data we targeted those weekends with a variety of initiatives. The Mayor wrote to licensees and they and their employees were more diligent in managing alcohol service in their venues.  Researchers from AARC used the local media to highlight for the town why there was going to be a focus on this weekend. The police rostered more resources and we were very proactive in performing ‘high visibility policing’ by conducting endless inspections of licensed premises inspections and talking to staff and patrons. We increased foot patrols of the main street around these premises and implemented stationary and on the road random breath testing.

Researchers shared the results of these weekend efforts through the local media, showing the positive outcomes compared with previous years – an important part of the strategy because the community was more likely to get behind the efforts if they knew they worked. We did the high risk weekend interventions five or six times in a year. Things didn’t always go as planned as at times we had to attend to more urgent jobs, but the overall results speak for themselves. This process was replicated in all AARC towns, and Corowa had fewer alcohol related-crimes than the control towns.

I was really pleased when Anthony Shakeshaft told me that Corowa had done so well, even compared to other intervention towns – we had a real reduction in alcohol related crimes of 22%.  I’m not sure why -- possibly due to Corowa being a smaller town than the other towns. But I do know that the community of Corowa are very passionate about their town, everyone supports each other and there is a strong sense of community values. In Corowa, little things are treated like big things and dealt with accordingly. I must mention that the Police at Corowa did a great job: they are very passionate about the Corowa community and were very experienced and enthusiastic in their approach.

In conclusion, I thought what was asked of us by AARC was achievable and could be implemented on an ongoing basis.

Read the media release about the AARC findings or browse the project's final report.