An Empathetic Approach

Corey Allen.png

Inspector Corey Allen is head of one of Australia’s largest police stations, in Brisbane. In his inspiring talk for a TEDxSouthBank event, he talks about how he was able to radically change the culture of his station by employing a policy of empathy, and disseminating this approach among his officers on duty.

When Inspector Allen first took up the role of managing the police station, he was expected to report to his superiors about crime statistics (such as the number of break-ins, the number of car thefts, the number of arrests). This way of thinking about policing was at odds with what his officers were reporting from the streets. They expressed frustration at not having anything to offer homeless and vulnerable people, apart from imprisonment overnight. There were other difficulties in the neighbourhood, including recently-built project housing that was crime-rife and turning into an urban slum.

In response, Inspector Allen developed an approach to policing that is centred on respect and helping vulnerable people. Police became more personal – they got to know people in the neighbourhood and in the project housing buildings. Rather than being confrontational towards vulnerable people, his officers began to ask them if there was anything they could do to help.

In time, Inspector Allen set up other practices. He organised for his police to work with people who weren’t police – including youth workers – and talk to young people about issues like culture and community of origin. He gave police free travel vouchers so if they came across a person who was likely to cause trouble later in the night, they could give that person free and safe travel out of town. Inspector Allen also asked local street kids to make a piece of art that represented to them what the relationship with police should look like. The resulting artwork, which showed a police and a teenager respecting each other in graffiti, was hung up in the police station.

The police under Inspector Allen’s watch became healthier and happier. Sick leave dropped, and the station became the number one preference for police in their first year. Moreover, the number of arrests in the area plummeted, even though Allen never instructed any of his officers to stop arresting people. There was a reduction in crime across a spectrum of offences, including property crime (-59%), robberies (-41%) and assaults (-34%). There was a 50% reduction in complaints against the police for use of force and excessive use of force in the first few years of Allen’s tenure alone. The number of police assaults have reduced from 135 a year in the first year of Allen’s tenure, to 35 in 2015 (Allen’s speech was filmed in 2016).

Inspector Allen says that ‘it’s very hard to argue with the inner connected nature of human contact’. He poses the question to the audience: if his police station can make empathy one of the most effective tools in fighting crime, what else can we solve with empathy?

Empathy is key to our understanding of how child protection practices could take place in Australia. Inspector Allen’s approach could also be helpful when thinking about the relationship between police and young people - in particular, how to reduce the number of youth in juvenile justice facilities.

Watch Inspector Corey Allen’s full speech, below.