In the late 1990s, Senior Constable Dinesh Nettur used to work at the Melbourne Custody Centre in the city, when Victoria Police used to run the police gaol. Prisoners were held here prior to court appearance. One night there was a disturbance in one of the exercise yards and about six prisoners were refusing to be locked down for the night. One of them was a young man of Aboriginal descent who was tall, quite aggressive and very strong and wanted to be transferred to another prison in the city. There was a stand-off for some time before the duty inspector arrived and decided that the issue needed to be resolved. About 15 police with batons stood behind the inspector who was negotiating with the man across the yard asking him to stand down and trying to convince the others to go into their cells. Dinesh says, “You could cut the air with a knife – the classic “Mexican” stand-off prior to a prison riot.
“All of a sudden the main instigator ran at full pelt towards the group of police and we thought that he was about to assault the Inspector who himself decided to ‘tactically retreat’ behind us. Then the strangest thing happened: the man stopped. He then turned and walked to me at the end of the line and put his hands together in front of himself beckoning me to handcuff him – he surrendered without any force. He really put me on the spot and I stood there looking at him like a stunned mullet, but I quickly took out my handcuffs and put it on him and led him to another goal cell to calm down for the night. The rest of the prisoners then decided the game was up and went into lock-down for the night. Looking back on this strange event I often wonder whether the reason why he chose to surrender without force to me rather than any of my colleagues was because I looked physically and culturally more compassionate towards his cause… or something else perhaps…’’
From time to time strange stuff like this happens to Dinesh when he is on duty. So far as the police force is concerned Dinesh is a great example of its culture as an organisation. Well assimilated, as they say, into Australian society Dinesh would probably never have had the experiences he has as a policeman if he had chosen another career, say in an industry where there was more diversity.
There aren’t too many members from an Indian background in the police force, and while this creates a lot of curiosity and interest in those few in the police, this curiosity is not unmixed with pride and satisfaction. How else could one make sense of Dinesh’s experience with the prisoner on the run?
In a society polarised along lines of appearance the symbolic prestige attached to a member of the police from a non-white community cannot be overestimated.
Dinesh’s experiences, although he is a happy policeman, speak volumes about the lack of diversity in the police force. Dinesh agrees that cultural differences can create problems for the police force, but he maintains that misunderstandings and tensions are unavoidable in policing. Dinesh also says that a career with the police can be demanding and stressful. He is fully aware of that many communities feel underrepresented in the police force, Dinesh feels that some of this is due to the lack of interest in the police as a career path, he says. The reasons for this lack of interest, however, may seem quite contradictory. Just like the talk about diversity: the police force is not behind any other organisation or industry when it comes to discussing the matter. Yet its funding and the priorities that stem from its ideas of policing and society give the impression that the talk about diversity simply serves the purpose of keeping real diversity at bay.
Dinesh joined Victoria Police nearly 13 years ago. He is part of the Multicultural Liaison Unit. Dinesh went to school in Malaysia, India and Singapore before migrating to Australia. Living in four different countries – a semi-rural Malaysia, a hill station British school in south India, urban Singapore and then Melbourne - made him an ideal candidate for the force. In 13 years Dinesh still remains one of the few people from an Indian background in the police force. When he was undergoing his training he had a taste of public perceptions about ‘minorities’ in the force.
“When I was going through my training at the Academy in March 1997 the recruits were asked to help with the Police Academy Open Day. I was in the police recruit uniform outside the building assisting with moving furniture when I was approached by an elderly lady of Indian background in a sari. She got close to me and examined me from head to toe and then said: ‘Excuse me… do you work here?’ I said ‘Yes I do, I’m a police recruit’. She answered, ‘Oh I thought you worked in the garden or something’.
She then moved closer to me and asked quietly, ‘Do they accept coloured people in the force?’. I looked back at her and laughed and said ‘Yes… of course!’. At the time I thought it was quite a strange and funny comment, although looking around it was true – I hadn’t seen very many South Asians in the police force. It’s funny because at the time I never really thought that anyone in Australia would ever ask a question like that because of our government’s strong stance on discrimination, and I often think back about the expression of surprise on her face. I have since seen that element of surprise on the faces of people from an Indian or Sri Lankan background whenever I walk pass them in uniform; and now that my main work involves working with various multicultural communities, including refugees, I think I have really grown to understand the immediate and significant impact of a community’s perception of an organisation by having folks of similar cultural appearance – whether in police uniform or even in any position of government or authority.”
On a more mundane level, Dinesh says that a career in the police today is not about fast cars and adventures. Knowing the law and processing information at a computer terminal is the lot of the majority of police officers. Cracking down on street crime or chasing after an offender is only one part of the job. Often petty theft and minor offences take up an inordinate amount of time. The police in many ways today are no different to any other “knowledge workers” in the labour force. However, there is no escaping the fact that the police have a unique role in society, something that cannot be substituted with private security or other measures.
In a scenario of sporadic attacks on Indians in several areas of Melbourne it is not surprising that the community feels insecure, and is turning to the police not just for tough talk and reassurances but solutions in the form of adequate representation in the law and order machinery. For Victoria Police, however, the complexities of policing a modern society seem to necessitate skills and criteria that are hard to find in the community any more. But in many areas of the organisation, there’s plenty of evidence that the police force is adapting to the needs of working in a diverse community, and diversifying the services it has on offer. It is one of those strange conundrums of the public sector in Australia: inertia and apathy when it comes to making the institutions of society representative in an effective and just manner.