Extension of powers for PSOs during and after the COVID-19 pandemic; a call for concern.

With an easing of restrictions in Victoria, comes an increase in, and visibility of, Police and in particular, Protective Service Officers (PSOs). The deployment of PSOs was expanded during the COVID-19 lockdown and that expansion has now been made permanent.

So where does a PSO have authority during this time?

As defined by the Victoria Police Regulations 2014, PSOs have historically, and will continue to:

  • operate in ‘designated areas’ such as railway premises, including adjoining car parks, roadways, bus and tram stops;
  • protect persons holding certain official or public offices;
  • protect certain places of public importance (such as parliament and courts).

However, in response to the COVID-19 lockdown, this definition has expanded to include:

  • the entire Melbourne metropolitan area; and
  • the municipal districts of regional areas.

On 2 June 2020, the Government introduced a Bill further expanding the definition to include:

  • an area surrounding a sporting venue;
  • a venue of public entertainment;
  • a place of mass gathering; or
  • any large area in Victoria.

These expansion of PSO powers will remain after COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.

Can a PSO carry out an arrest?

In short, yes.

A PSOs has the powers to:

  • Arrest you if they suspect you have committed an offence.
  • Arrest someone who has breached parole or had their parole cancelled.
  • Conduct warrantless searches for drugs of dependence.
  • Request name and addresses if they suspect that you have committed an offence or from witnesses to indictable offences.
  • Randomly search members of the public as part of a Control of Weapons operation.
  • Issue an infringement notice for someone supplying liquor to a minor.
  • Apprehend a child under an emergency care warrant.
  • Use reasonable force.

A PSO may only use these powers within the ‘designated areas’ as described above; however, following the recent Bill there are now fewer major public areas that won’t have PSOs patrolling them.

What training does a PSO undertake?

A PSO undertakes a 12 week training course at the Victoria Police Academy.

In contrast, a police officer starts their career with 31 weeks of training at the Victoria Police Academy followed by a further 20 week of ‘on the job training’ placements as first responders, Highway Patrol and the Drug and Alcohol Section. This is then followed by a further 63 weeks of on the job training before being awarded a Diploma of Policing.

PSOs carry firearms and OC spray (capsicum spray) and have the same powers of arrest as a police officer within their designated areas yet receive only a fraction of the training.

Does the extra powers of a PSO actually provide additional public safety?

The expansion of PSOs throughout Victoria will result in an even larger police presence than existed before the COVID-19 restrictions. Victoria Police has stated that it will need to recruit 1500 additional officers to cover the expansion. This will undoubtedly increase public contact with PSOs.

However, this expansion of the use of PSOs by the Victorian Government is concerning. As stated above, PSOs lack neither the training nor experience of ordinary police and should not be utilised as such. They were brought in for a specific purpose, to assist with community safety on public transport, and should be limited to this purpose as opposed to being deployed into the community as a quasi-police force.

Ultimately, PSOs have significant powers but lack the training and experience required to deploy these powers outside the limited sphere in which they were always intended to operate.