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Police union blasts COVID directions as staffing shortfall 'threatens community safety'

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UPDATED | SAPOL is in a “full-blown staffing crisis”, with a combination of vaccination mandates, emergency quarantine directions and redeployment to “COVID-related duties” taking hundreds of officers off the frontline and undermining police capacity to “wield effective control over crime”, their union says.

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In his editorial for the forthcoming edition of SA’s Police Journal, Police Association president Mark Carroll urges Commissioner and state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens to “return police to the frontline, for everyone’s sake”, claiming that despite requests his organisation has not been provided with specific health advice underpinning the vaccine mandate.

The union is calling for unvaccinated officers to be allowed back on the beat, as well as those deemed close COVID contacts to be able to continue working if they do not have symptoms.

“We need police back on the frontline – we don’t need them acting as proxy SA Health workers any longer,” Carroll says.

The Police Association president says he has spent “almost my entire adult life in and around policing”, and “never before have I witnessed the extent of police officer shortages that are afflicting SAPOL right now”.

“Last October, Commissioner Grant Stevens issued a direction for all SAPOL employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations – he did not hand down this direction as the state’s police chief, he issued it under the auspices of the Emergency Management Act — wielding the health powers vested in him as the state’s COVID-19 coordinator,” Carroll says.

“At the time, I wrote to the commissioner, requesting the specific government health advice which underpinned this direction… I assumed it would be clearly evident, and immediately available on request.

“This advice, however, has not been forthcoming.”

Carroll says, however, that two of the stated purposes for the direction were to minimise disruption to police services due to the potential spread of COVID-19 among officers, and to offset the prospect of them being furloughed due to possible exposure to the virus.

Nonetheless, he argues, “at one stage last month, with the order in full effect, there were 335 members — all fully vaccinated — in quarantine”.

He argues that together with members who remain stood down, “as well as between 200 and 300 members re-directed to COVID-related duties, the situation has sent SAPOL into a full-blown staffing crisis”, with police “scrambling to cover critical frontline shortages”.

The SA Police force currently numbers around 4700, meaning last month saw more than 10 per cent of the workforce out of circulation, with another five per cent re-assigned to COVID duties.

“A disturbing reality is that many members have informed me there is no longer enough officers to perform proactive police work and target recidivist offenders – in fact, the information coming to me shows this function has not been performed for some considerable time,” Carroll says.

“On the police front line, we know there are risks to the community when recidivist offenders are no longer the target of proactive police work… the public is seeing the effects of this every day, with frequent news reports of violent knife and gun crimes.

“It all brings into question SAPOL’s ability to wield effective control over crime in the current climate.”

Carroll writes that “the total number of absent officers in SAPOL last month exceeded even the additional numbers the association successfully campaigned to recruit several years ago”.

“Back then we demanded the government recruit 313 extra cops on top of attrition rates, to safeguard the future of our force… yet in January we had almost 400 officers — and counting — not working.

“On that basis, it’s more than fair to say the direction has not achieved two of its chief purposes.”

He argues for “some very real and practical solutions to this”, including immediately returning all officers stood down on account of the vaccine mandate to their roles.

“‘Close contacts’ with no symptoms should be allowed to return to work… and, in the final analysis, the rise and availability of rapid antigen tests should only make it easier for SAPOL to do away with these policies,” he urges.

InDaily sought comment from SAPOL – including a request to confirm the number of officers affected – with a spokesperson saying Commissioner Stevens was “unavailable today to comment on the matter”.

However, on Friday evening he provided a detailed response, including updating the current staffing arrangements, which he suggests has seen the number of police off the frontline halve since January.

This now includes 96 officers undertaking COVID-19 duties, 58 quarantining as ‘close contacts’, 45 known to be COVID-positive and 70 “unvaccinated members of South Australia Police who are not in the workforce” – down from 200 when the mandate’s original deadline hit.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges across all aspects of the community – this includes policing,” Stevens said.

“As has been publicly stated many times, I am incredibly proud of the way in which all of SAPOL has responded to the demands of such a significant, drawn-out major emergency.

“As much as we all hoped to move past COVID-19, it has continued to be the dominant issue of the past two years.”

He said that at the height of SAPOL’s response to the emergency, “over 600 staff were deployed to the emergency on a daily basis”.

But he disputed the union’s claim that this continues to deploy up to 300 officers.

“The relaxation of community restrictions has removed the need for police officers to be deployed to road borders and at the airport [and the remaining medi-hotels are supported by Protective Security Officers with a reduced police officer presence,” he said.

“SA Police is committed to ensuring the health of not only our workforce but the community we interact with [and] SAPOL’s policy for all staff identified as COVID-19 ‘close contacts’ remains consistent with SA Health advice.

“As such police officers determined to be ‘close contacts’ are not permitted in the workplace for a period of seven days.”

He said “this policy is subject to regular and ongoing review”.

“Our policy with respect to unvaccinated employees has recently been reviewed and the decision was made to retain the current policy position,” he said.

“To maintain our high level of community service delivery, last year SA Police secured government funding for additional staff to support the COVID-19 response.

“The recruitment of 72 police officers was brought forward, and an additional 158 Protective Security Officers were recruited.”

Stevens said he was “disappointed” that the union had not consulted him on its editorial, as “would have provided a more accurate and less alarmist picture of the current staffing deployed to COVID-19 duties”.

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