Protective Services Officers – towards a surveillance state?

When the promise was made to post two Protective Services Officers to every railway station in Melbourne, the intent was to make passengers feel safe at night time. So why are PSOs now turning into part of a surveillance state?

 Protective Services Officers search two scruffy looking youths at Hoppers Crossing station

The other week on Reddit a poster had this to say about their run-in with a PSO at their local station:

My finance was leaving Ashburton Railway Station yesterday evening and saw a PSO walking around the parking area’s noting down registration numbers of all of the cars parked there for the day. She was a little off-put by this so approached the officer and asked if she had anything to be concerned about.

The PSO replied that they take down all of the registration numbers and then go inside and run them through their computer. Any car that comes up with suspended registration/license will have a patrol car waiting for them to drive off when they get in their car.

Relying on random internet scuttlebutt is a good way to make yourself look stupid, so I went kept an eye out next time I caught a train after 6 PM.

You’d think Sunshine is a place where Protective Services Officers should be keeping an eye out for delinquents, yet both the station platform and concourse were empty.

No PSOs to be found on the station platform or concourse

But when I looked out over the car park, I saw the two PSOs wandering past the rows of cars, scribbling down something in their notebook.

So that's where the PSOs are - noting down the registration plates in the station carpark

I paid a visit to Footscray station at the tail end of evening peak, and saw the same thing taking place.

PSOs noting down the registration plates of parked cars at a railway station carpark

When then Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu made the promise to introduce Protective Services Officers, he had the following to say:

”We’ll turn stations from places of fear into places of safety,” Mr Baillieu said.

”We want anyone – a young girl, an elderly woman – travelling home on the train at night to do so with confidence and not with fear.”

In reality Baillieu’s promise was targeted at namby-pamby Liberal voters who are afraid of youths and anyone who isn’t white, but it does raise the question – how the hell is hunting down deadbeats with unpaid fines making the rail network safer for passengers?

On a serious note

So far I’ve only spotted PSOs jotting down the details of parked cars at the start of their shifts – possibly it is their first task of the night after clocking on, before heading to the station proper when darkness falls.

Two Protective Services Officers and a Victoria Police officer question a passenger at Footscray station

As for the dragnet being thrown over railway stations, in April 2013 The Age ran a piece on PSOs ‘asking too many questions’ – over the course of a year they took down the names and date of birth of 29,000 people, resulting in the arrest of over 500 people for outstanding warrants.

Two PSOs question a passenger, while a Victoria Police officer supervises

In the end, we are on a slippery slope towards a police state – someone with unpaid fines might be the same kind of person responsible for actual criminal activity, but in order to take them off the streets, is it worth losing our freedom to use the rail network without being needlessly questioned by the authorities?


I’ve pushed this post out earlier than planned, after The Age published a piece on the topic on February 17, in which they speak to spokespeople from Victoria Police and Liberty Victoria:

“As part of their daily duties, ​Protectives Services Officers regularly check car parks,” police spokesman Inspector Darren Cooper said.

“PSOs will be checking for stolen vehicles, outstanding warrants, outstanding whereabouts, unlicensed and unregistered drivers,” he said.

“The car park is part of a normal, designated patrol area for PSOs, and by doing these checks, it allows them to further ensure safe travel for those using the public transport system, as well as aiding in Victoria Police’s commitment to road safety.”

Liberty Victoria spokesman George Georgiou said the policy represented a significant overreach of police powers, and was an unnecessary intrusion into the privacy of Melbourne’s commuters.

“Whilst we understand that there is be a need for police to deal with persons avoiding their responsibilities to pay fines, register their cars and the like, we see this move to use PSOs in the manner described in the article as overstepping the legitimate functions of PSOs and unnecessarily encroaching upon the right to privacy and freedom of movement of all Victorian commuters,” he said.

My concerns exactly.

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22 Responses to “Protective Services Officers – towards a surveillance state?”

  1. Tom the first and best. says:

    I think it is a combination of finding something for them to to with their time (except at the really busy stations, most of the time there is not much happening, especially in the evening when most passengers are getting off trains and leaving rather than arriving at the station and waiting), providing more justification for the money spent on them and a while they are there they might as well do this attitude.

  2. Michael Angelico says:

    If our roads were policed by police instead of cameras there wouldn’t be lots of people with unpaid fines etc. Then the only people the PSOs would be looking for would be the ones that star on “Wanted dead or alive” posters. (Or the modern equivalent, the APB)

  3. Andrew S says:

    It seems the PSO’s at stations are just the next step in hidden fine collection – a few years ago they were busy scanning number plates around the Chadstone car park

  4. Llib says:

    PSO’s are an offshoot of the police and have every right to check number plates. I would rather these unregistered/unlicensed vehicles be taken off the road or the offenders punished rather than them using the same roads as me. Additionally PSO’s are definitely worth the money because their presence makes normal commuters feel safer and less intimidated by anti social types that typically hang around the stations at late times. My only suggestion would be to redeploy some PSO’s from some quieter stations and have a greater presence in the major troublespots such as CBD tram stops and bus stops near shopping centres.

    I remember the negative media attention when they were introduced and people were predicting mayhem as they were armed and would cause incidents when the exact opposite has occurred.

  5. Bobman says:

    Just so you know it was Labor who introduced all the draconian speed camera laws, automatic number plate recognition and other nanny-state laws, not Liberal.

    Labor did this to appease the “namby-pamby Labor voters”.

    As far as jotting down registration numbers, the only positive from that is recovering stolen vehicles which are often dumped at railway stations.

  6. James A says:

    I wonder what the PSOs at Deer Park Station do in their spare time. Barely any passengers to “protect”, only a train or two every two hours to make things exciting and they’re lucky if they get a dozen cars whose numberplates to record. The PSO office is about a 5 minute walk from the station anyway, so I don’t think they ever bother leaving it.

  7. mich says:

    It seems to me, they would be better actually checking tickets instead of demanding the names of people who have valid tickets.

  8. Jacob says:

    Marcus, have you heard of the broken windows theory?

    When a new Mayor of New York put in his Zero Tolerance approach, they found out that a lot of the subway users that were not paying for their ticket were actually carrying drugs and cans of spray paint.

    So they went after every crime and murder rates plummeted in NYC.

    The problem in Australia is the councils are responsible for cleaning up graffiti and a separately funded body (state police) is responsible for catching vandals. So there is no incentive for Victoria Police to stop vandals because the Victorian Government does not pay the bill for cleaning up vandalism.

  9. Llib says:

    The main fact of the matter is that PSO’s lead to less antisocial behaviour and a perception for most paying users that the system is safer.

    The reason for their success is one of perception as their uniforms are similar to the police and the fact that they are armed creates a deterrent effect which ordinary station staff or even private security guards cannot match.

    In regards to number plate checking I am perfectly happy for a man who has an arrest warrant and is parking in a commuter car park to be arrested. I am really not concerned about his privacy as number plates are checked frequently in police stops, boozebuses and other situations.

  10. Ange says:

    I find the presence of PSOs at my quiet station completely over the top. They don’t make me feel safer, but they do make me feel annoyed, especially when they hover right at the myki readers, even obstructing them some times.

  11. Mickey Mouse says:

    PSO’s are part of Victoria Police. i think they don’t care about parking fines, that’s the sheriffs job. Checking number plates is probably more about finding criminals, not about fines.

    Fact is that a lot of criminals use PT and i think that the PSO’s are there to make sure they do the right thing, and not for the 99% of normal people who travel on PT.

    Although they are being wasted being put on all stations. They should be put at the bigger stations and the ones that have crime problems, not on the little ones in the nice suburbs where nothing bad usually happens.

  12. Adrian says:

    This happened today while I was waiting for my train:

    I had some headphones on(no music playing) while looking at my phone, and saw two cpos walking down the platform. I overheard one of them jokingly whisper to his partner “I’ll do the racial profiling this time”. He then walked over to some ethnic lady near me and began a casual conversation. He then asked her if he could take down her name, just as standard procedure. She agreed, after which he began taking her address, dob, employer name…etc. He then assured her it was just to make sure everyone got home safe tonight (which I found kind of disgusting after the last joke). The way they go about extracting private information is already dodgy enough, but now they seem to be targeting minorities just because they are afraid to question them about it. Pathetic really.

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