Victoria Police is set to more than double the number of specialist anti-riot officers in a move that Chief Commissioner Ken Lay says is partly a response to images of rioting mobs in England last year.
VICTORIA Police is set to more than double its squad of anti-riot officers in a move that new Chief Commissioner Ken Lay says is partly a response to television images of rioting mobs in England last year.
Membership of the police riot squad will grow from 50 to 110 after Mr Lay recently signed off on the move.
He told The Age that in the past, when riot squad members had been pulled out of regions to confront trouble, some areas had been left under-policed. He said the boost in squad numbers would stop this occurring.
Mr Lay revealed his decision was partly a response to vision he saw of the England riots in August, when packs looted and burnt their way through several major cities in response to a London police shooting.
''[The riots] caused me to question what our response was, what our response would be if we had a similar incident,'' he said. ''I certainly thought that there was room to make us better.
''For many years we've seen our vans turn up at pretty ugly incidents where they've been put at great risk.
''I think the community can rightly expect that in those situations we've got a capacity to solve it and solve it properly.''
Mr Lay, who flagged a return to traditional policing when appointed last November, said training for new anti-riot police would take place over the next three or four months.
Squad members will perform regular front-line duties when not assigned to large gatherings that spill out of control.
Mr Lay denied the move was a response to the Occupy Melbourne demonstrations in October - when police clashed fiercely with protesters - but said that was an instructive experience for the police force.
While street violence was a problem for police, he said this was not a driving factor in increasing the size of the squad.
He confirmed the move was influenced by the growing number of front-line police at his disposal as the Baillieu government delivers on its election promises. The number of frontline officers is set to grow by 400 in the year to June.
Mr Lay said the new riot squad members would be on call during anticipated busy times. ''[It] may well be from time to time we'll have these people working on a Friday and Saturday night so when our general duties fellas and girls get faced with this situation they have got an ability to roll out and address it and hit it hard.
''Often we see parties that get out of control, kids' parties [where] we end up with five and six and 700 kids that we need to be able to get there quickly and have a very aggressive approach to stop it quickly and protect our members.''
Civil liberties groups have questioned the need for a boost to the riot squad.
Liberty Victoria acting president Jane Dixon said there had been no local events that justified such a move. She said demonstrating was a fundamental democratic right, and an expanded riot squad in shields and helmets could potentially leave people feeling intimidated without justification.
Tamar Hopkins, of the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, said the
move was a massive overreaction. She said the England riots were apparently caused by the unnecessary shooting of a black man in the context of years of harassment of the black community. She said over-policing of African migrants was also happening in Melbourne in the form of unnecessary searches and excessive legal force.
She said tackling underlying causes would be far more effective in preventing riots. ''Training on reducing [these] would actually be more beneficial and less likely to spark a London riot-type situation than absolute overkill through doubling the riot squad number,'' she said.
Fitzroy Legal Centre's Meghan Fitzgerald, who is assisting Occupy Melbourne members injured in protests, said the move was a ''militarisation'' that would fuel a mentality among police that they were there to subdue rather than protect.
Police Association secretary Greg Davies said police faced more large, spontaneous and aggressive situations than in the past, with people far more likely to attack police now.
He welcomed the boost to the riot squad, but said it meant there would be 60 fewer police on the front line of the already understaffed force. ''Every asset has its price,'' Mr Davies said.
Meanwhile, Mr Lay yesterday announced the appointment of three new deputy commissioners, heralding what he hopes will be a new era of stability after the departure of former chief commissioner Simon Overland.
Lucinda Nolan will oversee recruitment and replacing the troubled LEAP database, Tim Cartwright will take over traffic and domestic violence and Graham Ashton will become deputy commissioner for crime.
The appointments follow deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe announcing his retirement after 44 years in the force.