The number of people calling Victoria’s Police Assistance Line hit a record high in April as thousands of people reported suspected breaches of the state’s coronavirus restrictions.
More than 102,000 calls were received in April, compared to nearly 71,000 in March – a 30 per cent jump.
A Victoria Police spokesperson said assistance line and online reporting averaged 3500-11,500 calls a day at the peak of the pandemic – the vast majority relating to coronavirus breaches.
The line was set up in 2019 as an alternative to triple-0 to deal with non-urgent crimes.
Extra staff were brought on board to deal with the influx in late March. Among them were 12 Australian Defence Force members who were recruited to respond to urgent calls.
“Before the pandemic, our most common reports were in relation to [the] theft of [a] motor car, theft from [a] motor car, lost property and theft, and we would receive around 2500 calls a day,” Inspector Steve Towers said.
“Although the service wasn’t set up to assist in statewide emergencies, we’ve managed to make a real difference, such as during the bushfires when we recorded residents who were looking to be returned to Mallacoota.”
Inspector Towers said the “core business of taking non-urgent crime reports is very much a part of what we continue to do”. He encouraged people to keep using the phone line and online reporting portal.
Victorians face on-the-spot fines of $1652 for breaching COVID-19 restrictions, and can also face heavier penalties under State of Emergency legislation.
At the start of April, when police were first granted special powers, they were fining up to 142 people a day.
Since then, about 5600 people have been hit with more than $8 million in fines for breaching coronavirus restrictions, Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville told a parliamentary committee investigating the state’s response to COVID-19.
Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton later noted that of those fines, 337 had been withdrawn or cancelled and 165 had been paid in full.
There have been 437 people or businesses who have asked for their fine to be reviewed.
Ms Neville said the number of fines issued, compared to how many spot checks were performed, showed Victoria Police had struck a “pretty good balance”.
“While people were overwhelmingly saying you need to do more to enforce, police were saying we need to get this right, and they did,” she told the Public Affairs and Estimates Committee.
“They have used their discretion, they have looked at the directive, where they needed to they have looked for advice from the chief health officer around those directives, and absolutely have got this right and saved lives.”