Community sentiments and perceptions of Victoria Police

Community sentiments and perceptions of Victoria Police

Monash PhD researcher looks into police legitimacy in the City of Monash

Allegra Schermuly, a former perioperative nurse from the UK, decided that a change was imminent after 20 years of nursing and enrolled in a Diploma of Liberal Arts at Chisholm TAFE in Frankston, later enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts at Monash, with a double major in sociology and anthropology.

Upon graduating she received the Vice Chancellor’s Honours-PhD scholarship, receiving top marks for her Honours thesis and progressing to a PhD.

Allegra’s PhD research was about community perceptions of Victoria Police in the City of Monash, with the aim of finding out what people in the area thought of their local police. A key part of this research was finding factors that impacted on public perceptions of the police, levels of trust in the local police, as well as public perceptions of the legitimacy of the police as an institution.

Most research in the field of police legitimacy studies tends to be done using large scale surveys, similar to what the government and police do as well as what other academics have done in the past. But Dr Schermuly emphasises that what is different about her project was that she used qualitative methods – interview methods – with an aim of getting quite intricate details of what people thought and why.

One challenge associated with her research was parsing the opinions of an ethnically diverse population, as this can shape an individual’s opinion of the police. “For me it was about getting a representation of the communities in Monash which are so diverse,” Dr Schermuly said.

“That was tricky because you only speak to a certain number of people in a project like this.”

“In reality you’re never going to be able to say that your findings apply to everybody. To try and counter that I tried to speak to a good balance of people from the different communities – people that were in a representative capacity in some way, as well as those that weren’t and people that had lived in the area for different amounts of time.”

Dr Allegra Schermuly with PhD supervisors Dr Helen Forbes-Mewett and Dr Asher Flynn
Dr Allegra Schermuly with PhD supervisors Dr Helen Forbes-Mewett and Dr Asher Flynn

She found that one of the most obvious things that people talked about when interviewed was how much change there had been in the City of Monash, which meant that there had been change generally in the community and a change to the social fabric.

People were living in different ways. For instance, Dr Schermuly’s interviews revealed that there had been a lot of subdivision of housing blocks. People were living in much more dense housing types, and there were problems with parking.

On the one hand people could see there had been a lot of development and they had negative impressions of a lot of the development that was being done for profit, and the people weren’t being considered.

On the other hand, people felt that the police infrastructure in the City of Monash hadn’t been invested in to the same extent. While there had been perceived change at the same time, community members held the perception that police infrastructure was stagnating. What people took that to mean was that Law and Order issues weren’t being prioritised in their area.

“There was a feeling by residents in the City of Monash that the municipalities that are often on the news for high crime and so on were getting all the money and in the City of Monash because people are relatively affluent, they felt that they weren’t being prioritised as a community,” Dr Schermuly said.

“Although that wasn’t necessarily the fault of Victoria Police in the long term, it still appeared to leave a negative impression of Victoria Police and also an impression (especially in Clayton) that the Clayton Police station needed an upgrade.”

One of her overwhelming findings was that people in general had a reasonable impression of Victoria Police – although most of her respondents felt that some aspects of Victoria Police’s performance could be better, most people also thought Victoria Police were doing a reasonable job under the circumstances.

“Some of the older residents that I spoke with, who had lived in the area for quite a while, did express to me that they were starting to feel less safe in their area, and one of the reasons for this was that they felt that there were lots of new people moving into their area – particularly people of different ethnicities,” Dr Schermuly said.

Her interviews revealed that community sentiments from older Anglo-Australians were that a lot of the newer migrants made them feel unsafe due to differing cultural values. But when explicitly asked if they had multicultural social circles, an overwhelming majority enthusiastically admitted they did.

With regards to the police, non-migrant groups felt that the police had always been an institution that represented them: but now that the police were having to change and adapt due to the very multicultural nature of Melbourne, some residents felt it was political correctness gone too far.

These established residents felt they had been left behind as a group and the police were trying to prioritise relationships with newer migrant groups.

Conversely, those from multicultural communities overwhelmingly thought Victoria Police weren’t doing enough from the point of view of multicultural engagement.

“One particular person that I interviewed, from an ethnic background who had been involved with the police was very complimentary of the police’s multicultural services,” Dr Schermuly said.

“But his perspective was that it was very inadequate compared to how multicultural the community is and how the demographics of the area have moved on. The participants’ perspectives of Victoria Police definitely differed depending on who they were and where they were from.”

Now that her research is complete, and she has successfully been awarded her PhD, she says greater representation of diverse ethnicities within Victoria Police would be looked upon favourably, noting that one respondent had revealed if the organisational culture of Victoria Police remains the same, the migrant population might not be attracted to working for Victoria Police as they might not feel welcomed by the current organisational culture.

But Dr Schermuly says that these are very entrenched things, difficult things to change, but nevertheless, that is what her research would point towards needing prioritisation.

Post PhD, Dr Schermuly is now part of a team working on an ARC Discovery Project led by Professor Alan Petersen here at Monash: A sociological study of patients’ use of digital media. This health-related project will also see Dr Schermuly undertake an exchange to The University of Plymouth in the UK where she will be at The School of Criminology and Governance for a month working with one the Discovery Project collaborators. Allegra felt that doing her PhD at Monash has set her up really well for the challenges ahead:

“It was a hard journey but I was really lucky with my two supervisors, Dr Helen Forbes-Mewett and Dr Asher Flynn, that’s the key thing that I take away — just how much it matters having supportive supervisors. It makes a difference between successfully finishing or not finishing a PhD,” she said.

Study at Monash