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Western Sydney disproportionately fined for Covid lockdown breaches

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA

Police disproportionately fined residents of western Sydney for Covid-19 breaches during the most recent outbreak, new data shows, despite surveys suggesting its residents were among the most compliant in the state.

The state’s premier crime statistics agency has warned the high volume of fines issued to residents in Sydney’s areas of concern will pose a “significant burden for some sections of the community who are already vulnerable” and urged the government to monitor the longer-term impact of the police response.

In a report released on Wednesday, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (Bocsar) examined the enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions in July and August, as Sydney battled a worsening outbreak.

Related: ‘Extraordinary’: Police fine dozens after church service in western Sydney Covid hotspot

It found that while the vast majority of Sydney residents “strictly complied” with public health orders, police acted on 36,597 breaches of public health orders in the two-month period.

Bocsar described the figure as “extraordinary”. It accounts for 90% of all police activity for the duration of the pandemic.

Most of the breaches were dealt with by a fine, typically of $1,000, and usually involved unnecessary movement outside of a local government area (LGA) and visits to other households.

People in LGAs of concern, younger men, and those with recent involvement with police were most likely to be targeted. Roughly half the breaches – about 18,200 – involved a person who police had charged with another offence in the preceding five years.

About 13,292, or more than one-third of all breaches, occurred in the LGAs of concern.

Despite this, a Bocsar survey showed lower rates of non-compliance among people residing in LGAs of concern compared with the rest of the city.

Related: ‘Ridiculous’: NSW police accused of handing out unfair Covid fines and targeting young people

“There is no evidence that people in areas of concern or young people are engaging in more non-compliant activities,” the report said. “Overall, our results suggest that breaches are largely enforcement-driven rather than reflecting underlying patterns of non-compliance.”

Bocsar said its evidence suggested “increased enforcement activity at certain times and locations” was the major factor behind the higher number of breaches for young men with a recent criminal history in the LGAs of concern.

A high proportion of the breaches occurred because police were searching people for other reasons, including suspected drug offences.

“Close to half of all individuals proceeded against by police for a breach of the Covid-19 public health orders had previously been proceeded against by police for other offences and breaches most often occurred in outdoor public places or at public transport hubs,” the report said.

“Qualitative data from the narratives analysis also suggests that a high proportion of detected breaches involved police searches, occurring through road patrols and suspected drug activity.”

The report relied on crime data, Covid case data, a survey of self-reported compliance, and a collection of “police narratives” concerning a random sample of 570 breaches.

“It is possible that self-reported rates of compliance were greater in LGAs of concern because of the increased enforcement activity prior to the surveying period, but it is also possible that residents were motivated to adhere to the restrictions because the risk of infection was substantially higher in these localities,” the report said.

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“Regardless, the high volume of breaches and the heavy penalties that these offences attract will present a significant burden for some sections of the community who are already vulnerable.

“The longer-term impact of this enforcement activity should therefore be the subject of continued monitoring and public scrutiny.”

NSW police said in a statement that the rapid spread of the virus had caused health orders to “continually evolve, resulting in LGAs of concern nominated by NSW Health”.

“The NSW Government and NSW Health both sought an urgent police response to ensure the highest level of compliance with the health orders in those areas,” a spokesperson said.

“The public health orders have been in place for a reason, to ensure as many people as possible are protected from serious illness or even death.”

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