Six mad months: How police held the thin blue line against a threat that can’t be seen

Queensland’s Police Commissioner tells of an extraordinary six months and how the state has managed to stay ahead of COVID-19

Jul 03, 2020, updated Jul 03, 2020
Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll . (Photo: AAP Image/Albert Perez)

Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll . (Photo: AAP Image/Albert Perez)

Every week in Australia, police commissioners catch up to discuss law enforcement and other issues of shared concern. In a pandemic, as you might expect, those discussions have taken on a slightly different perspective and also revealed different approaches to this new, invisible threat.

Queensland was the first state to declare an emergency situation over COVID-19 and, under its well-refined disaster management arrangements, Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young took the lead with police rallying behind. Young is full of praise for how police have handled the public health response, and readily admits Queensland could not have flattened the curve of infection without their efforts.

Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll has worked alongside Young before and told InQueensland she had some early insight into how the disaster management arrangements might again deliver good outcomes, especially compared to other states. The procedures have, after all, been refined with every bushfire, every cyclone, every flood and every major incident that Queensland has gone through.

As Victoria now grapples with a rising number of cases, many of them leaking out of supposed quarantine, and as NSW still deals with the aftermath of the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle, Queensland has kept a steady course.

“We were talking in Queensland about our compliance checks, of the people we had in isolation, quite a few weeks before my counterparts were,” Carroll said this week.

“We have very robust disaster management arrangements here where we, from those very, very early days, we had a very robust system in place, long before other states had and I think that has put us in very good stead.”

Carroll and Young worked closely together during the G20 in Brisbane in 2014. Carroll had responsibility for policing the protests when a gastro outbreak threatened the thin blue line protecting world leaders.

“Jeannette and I had a fair bit to do with each other in G20 when we had a bit of an outbreak of health issues in some of our staff … and some of the interstate members who came up,” Carroll said.

“We work well together.”

This year, the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted protests around the world, complicating efforts to enforce social distancing, let alone reflect on day-to-day policing. While the Palaszczuk Government sought to discourage people from attending the protests, it did not ban them. Inevitably, the mass gatherings were seen by some to have undermined the COVID-19 response.

“But we could see across the world that there was just this wave that we weren’t going to stop,” Carroll said.

“So, if we weren’t going to stop it, how do we best make it work?”

At the G20 protests, on a particularly hot day, police handed out bottles of water. For the Black Lives Matter protests, Carroll said they handed out some 5,000 masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As always, police kept in contact with protest organisers to ensure everyone was on the same page. Fortunately, there was no outbreak of COVID-19.

Policing a health issue with actual police is unusual but Carroll said the approach did not differ from how the Queensland Police Service tried to operate.

“Our mantra really is compassion, communication and then finally compliance,” Carroll said, adding that she “tried to get that balance right”.

Even within the service, there have been health concerns. Frontline officers have been required to shave their beards to ensure a snug fit for their masks (internal social media made light of it all) and others have been moved into different roles. At-risk staff had been allowed to work from home, and Carroll has tried to ensure that officers are not putting themselves in danger trying to keep Queenslanders safe. This is especially the case when inspecting home quarantine arrangements or facing new arrivals for the first time.

Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge for police has been enforcing travel restrictions on an open state border – for the first time in a century – as well as other transport hubs. Due to Victoria’s spate of COVID-19 cases, police will have that role for the foreseeable future, from today diverting anyone arriving from Victoria into quarantine. Inspections will also be ramped up.

But Carroll said none of these decisions came without prior planning – the QPS was constantly working up contingencies for all possible scenarios – and she was confident police would have the resources to deliver for the next three months. Again, it is something she, and Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski, the state disaster coordinator, do in conjunction with Young and other key agencies.

“We meet every afternoon at 5 o’clock to go through the planning, the preparation, the gaps, the risks, have we thought of this, what does the legislation look like, how is the enforcement going to commence, you name it,” Carroll said, noting that there were about 1,000 people focussed on COVID-19 alone.

“That happens daily and I think it needs to. And some of those discussions are quite candid. Jeannette will talk about what they want to achieve and then we speak about how we’re going to operationalise that, what processes we need in place, what difficulties we might anticipate and how we’re going to work through that together.”

For police, beards have not been the only thing sacrificed along the way. Holidays have been cancelled or put on hold, officers have been required to do more overtime, and Carroll has looked at all options for keeping uniforms in the community.

“Every year we have to maintain our operational skills training, and that takes people off the road for three full days,” Carroll offered as an example of the decisions having to be made in the background.

“What I’ve decided to do is extend that over a two-year period so you don’t have to complete that within 12 months.”

Other agencies have helped – “we have Defence working with us not just on the borders but in our indigenous communities and across the state” – but often police are best suited to the task at hand. Carroll said Queenslanders had generally been cooperative, but there had still been those individuals trying to deliberately flout the laws, such as by booking hotel rooms for parties.

As the Labor government imposes a 12-month public service pay freeze, that has led to sensitive discussions with the police union, and the prospect of bonus payments and additional time off – once things have calmed down.

“Certainly, every day we sit down and look at the resourcing, we look at the rostering, and we make sure we have that balance correct in responding to this and business as usual,” Carroll said.

Throughout it all, Carroll has kept working, as has her husband. At home, the pandemic has seen their teenagers around more often, whether doing school or trying to stay fit with friends.

“I found a lot of people at my house eating a lot of food which was costing a fortune but I was very happy that they were home doing the right thing,” Carroll said.

For her part, Carroll has also been keeping fit – at least, until six weeks ago, when she snapped a ligament in her ankle while out walking.

“They’re getting fitter and I can barely walk,” Carroll remarks, having to add physio sessions to her responsibilities outside work.

“I’m a bit over it to tell you the truth.”

Like the police service itself, Carroll is mustering as much energy as she can just to keep going in what has become an extraordinary year for all involved.

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