The Great Alcohol Debate: Police protective custodies headed south over the last six years


UPDATED: November 1, 2012, 12.28pm. See graph at the bottom.

The small drop in the most recent 12 months builds on a big drop in the preceding 12 months
Protective custody statistics shown in the Police Annual Report, tabled in the Legislative Assembly yesterday, show a considerable drop in police protective custodies over the last six years, with a big hike in the middle period followed by a big drop in 2010-11 (see graph below).
This puts a different complexion on the recent mileage made by NT Attorney-General John Elferink of the small drop in police PCs between 2010-11 and 2011-12. A small drop building on a big drop is a better look for where alcohol policy was heading than just a small drop on its own. Mr Elferink interpreted the small drop as evidence of the failure of the Banned Drinkers Register, rolled out across 2011-12.
The Alice Springs News Online asked for more detailed statistics, specific to Alice Springs. We repeated our request this week but to date we have had no reply (sounds familiar – same spots on this different leopard).
Turning to the six-year picture in the Police Annual Report, in all years the numbers involving Indigenous males tower over the rest, but over the six-year period they have dropped by more than 5000, from 17,375 in 2006-07 to 11,926 in 2011-12.
The next largest category is Indigenous females, over the six years dropping by a little more than 2000, from 7432 in 2006-07 to 5378 in 2011-12.
The figures for non-Indigenous females have risen, but the numbers are small: 131 in 2006-07, 171 in 2011-12. The figures for non-Indigenous males have fallen by some 200, from 1509 to 1296.
In 2011-12 there is an unusually high number of people in the Indigenous status unknown category, due to a changing in recording practices. All up these cases accounted for 1214 police PCs, 683 of them female.
Looking at totals, there has been a drop from 26,448 in 2006-07 to 19,988 in 2011-12. In between the figures climbed to a shocking high of 35,872 in 2009-10, not far off the 35,397 of the preceding 12 months. The big jump from 2007-08 was in the Indigenous male category (up by 4382), followed by the Indigenous female category (up by 1669). These peaks were followed by a big fall  in 2010-11 to 20,354, with figures for Indigenous males and females both dropping below the levels recorded in 2006-07.
The police PC stats however – as pointed out in the report –  do not give a full picture as they don’t include people taken to sobering up shelters, taken home or left in the care of a responsible person.
Below: The graph illustrates the sustained drop in police Protective Custodies, NT-wide. One factor that may have contributed to the big drop in 2010-11, as pointed out by Bob Durnan in the comment below, is the ban on cheap wine in large casks (4 and 5 litres). This was made NT-wide effective from January 1, 2011, bringing Darwin and Palmerston into line with the other major urban centres and most towns of the NT where the ban already existed. The Licensing Commission noted in its decision, that prior to the ban, “the Darwin / Palmerston areas were defying the downward trend with alcohol sales and consumption increasing, while a decline was being experienced in the rest of the Territory”.


  1. It is tempting to say this dramatic NT-wide drop in police protective custody apprehensions of drunks, which is greater than 44% in the two years from June 30th 2010 to June 30th 2012, is very good news for the NT.
    It would also, paradoxically, be good news for the Mills government and its efforts to contain unnecessary expenditures.
    However these conclusions depend, at least partly, on not being contradicted by the absent data: the trends contained in the yet unknown figures for those drinkers who were not taken into protective custody under police supervision at the watch-houses (but who were taken by police to SUSs, private homes etc), although those figures are normally much lower and fairly stable.
    The less dazzling but nonetheless very impressive and probably more reliable figure of a 24% overall drop in police protective custody apprehensions of drunks since the beginning of the NT Emergency Response Intervention in June 2007 is cause for satisfaction at the Licensing Commission. It will also encourage those many community leaders, public servants, politicians, health professionals and concerned members of the public who have been desperately trying to find productive, sustainable ways to lessen the debilitating impact of excessive consumption on NT society and its budget.
    The recent big drop in the police protective custody numbers, since June 2010, is, almost certainly, partly attributable to the introduction of bans on 3, 4 and 5 litre cheap wine casks throughout the rest of the NT during the 2010-2011 period.
    Another factor would be the settling effect that has come with consolidation of increased police presence in remote communities and their patrols on remote roads, and also the more consistent and professional Night Patrol operations in many of the communities.
    According to large opinion surveys of remote residents in 2011, the efforts of these police and patrol workers have caused significant lessening of grog-running, drunkenness and violence in most communities.
    These strengthened safety services initially led to increases in apprehensions of drinkers who were previously able to consistently get away with behaving badly on the roads and in their home communities, but seem in more recent years to have led to less of that misbehaviour.
    (When the Licensing Commission mandated its NT-wide bans on casks larger than 2 litres, it was simply arranging for Darwin, Palmerston, and other smaller places to follow the successful example which had already been set by Alice Springs, so it is not surprising that Alice Springs did not experience such a dramatic reduction of protective custody apprehensions during 2010-2011 as did the rest of the NT: it had already received the benefits of outlawing the big casks).
    The Mills government would be well advised to take on board the lessons of how these improvements were achieved, and consider them carefully when deciding on its own moves to address the still very considerable alcohol-related problems confronting the people of the NT. It should, particularly, respect the judgements of the Licensing Commission and Justice Department experts who are now very adept at designing initiatives which have good chances of success in relation to reduction in consumption and harms.
    However to really get to grips with what they mean, we need access to the regional data to which Kieran refers.
    We also probably need to be able to overlay the data with the changing rules and styles which governed local police operations during this five year period.

  2. Although I am new to Alice Springs and the Northern Territory, the impulsive expiation of the “Banned Drinkers Register” by NT Attorney-General John Elferink and the new ruling government, without due deliberation, is a cause for great social concern. Its role in supporting the prevention of alcohol related human dysfunction within NT communities since its inception seems to have been expediently morphed by an incoming government that has cast a shadow over its rhetoric on human rights. Kieran Finnane’s article offers important reflective perspectives that need to be disseminated as part of a broader community debate. Thank you for the well documented insights and the spirit you have injected into this debate.


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