Assault on the job
Instances of abuse aimed at council officers are on the rise – is it time for better protections for staff and higher penalties for perpetrators?
In recent years, many councils have noted an increase in assaults on employees who are simply carrying out their jobs – in some cases with serious repercussions for the victims.
In 2015, a chilling story emerged from eastern Victoria: Two South Gippsland Shire Council officers were brutally attacked when inspecting a local property.
The pair were pursued, beaten and sustained serious injuries as a result.
One of the officers involved in the incident, Matthew Patterson, was able to return to work shortly after, but said the repercussions for his colleague have been ongoing.
“Building and Planning Enforcement Officer, Justin Eades, is still recovering from his injuries and yet to return to work.
“During the attack he suffered various head injuries and has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, post head injury cognitive deficits, anxiety and depression; he [also] has anosmia and some ongoing pain in the head and neck.”
While this incident may have been isolated in its severity, the council has noted a rise in more minor incidents in recent years, Mr Patterson said.
“Anecdotally there has been [a rise in abuse] as the number of matters that Council compliance and enforcement staff deal with; State government legislation is continually increasing the number of matters that Council needs to deal with.”
This parallels survey results from the United Services Union (USU) — a New South Wales local government union — which in 2014 found that rangers, animal control officers and parking officers across the State believed interactions with the public have become more aggressive in recent years.
Reasons cited were a ‘general lack of respect’, ‘increasing fines’ and ‘negative media coverage.’
Mr Patterson also said there needs to be ‘an increase in the level of respect the community has for compliance and enforcement officers.’
“Some members of the community feel that is okay to treat these officers differently to how they treat other members of the community, i.e. it’s okay to verbally abuse a parking officer after getting a ticket.”
An incident in 2013 at Whitehorse Council in metropolitan Victoria left a parking officer unable to return to work after a physical attack.
Whitehorse’s General Manager Corporate Services, Peter Smith, said this incident was unusual, but a lack of respect for council officers is consistently evident.
“While physical assaults are not common, staff are subject to verbal assaults on a frequent basis.”
In this case, the perpetrator was given just a 12-month good behaviour bond for the assault.
The Victorian branch of Local Government Professionals (LGPro) is currently campaigning to review sentencing of perpetrators of assault against Victorian local government employees.
LgPro President Rebecca McKenzie said anecdotal evidence from the organisation’s member councils shows that abuse has escalated over time and members of the public are more ‘overt in their aggression’ and more likely to ‘challenge council workers when they are just doing their job.’
The association is pushing for mandatory sentencing in line with what is in place for the assault of police officers and other frontline emergency services workers.
However, this suggestion was knocked back by the Victorian Attorney General earlier this year.
Ms McKenzie said LGPro was “surprised there wasn’t an appetite to entertain a conversation, given the nature of the work these officers do … compared to the work of police officers or other emergency services workers”.
Mr Smith said Whitehorse is also supportive of reviewing sentencing for perpetrators.
‘Council hopes for urgent consideration and legislative change.’
“Immediate action will deter prospective offenders and provide better protection to the hundreds of Authorised Officers employed by Victorian councils.”
As well as pushing for legislative reform, many councils are implementing increased health and safety measures and protections for staff.
Following the incident in 2015, South Gippsland Council has tightened security policies, Mr Patterson said.
“There have been a number of changes introduced including: a review and update of OHS policies/procedures, situational awareness training for compliance and enforcement staff, use of satellite phones, body worn cameras for local law officers and GPS tracking for Council vehicles.”
Ms McKenzie said initiatives like duress alarms, call-in systems and more rigorous lone worker policies are being adopted by councils.
The USU survey found that body worn cameras were generally well received by the workers surveyed and, anecdotally, could help reduce instances and severity of abuse.
The City of Hobart recently undertook an eight-week trial of the technology and found that officers wearing the cameras throughout the period avoided abuse, whilst those without cameras continued to experience verbal abuse with one instance of physical assault.
In Victoria, Ms McKenzie said LG Professionals would continue to push for legislative change on mandatory sentencing: “Our belief is that where there is appropriately severe sentencing options in place, that acts as a deterrent for people who choose to display unacceptable behaviour.”