Launceston Police 1876 (ALMFA, SLT)

Police protection was necessary as soon as the first settlements of Hobart Town and Port Dalrymple were made in 1804. To maintain order from dusk to dawn, Lt-Governor Collins established watches staffed with convicts, but robberies continued with the watch failing to report crimes for fear of reprisal. In 1806 Collins replaced convicts with armed military patrols, but they were unable to cope as bushranging increased. Lt-Governor Davey imposed martial law and Sorell appointed more district constables, but bushranging continued, and with more convicts arriving, robbery, fraud and sheep-stealing increased from 1818. Settlers did not feel adequately protected by the small, mostly convict police force.

Lt-Governor Arthur reorganised the convict system, its pivot a strengthened and centralised police force. An armed field police dealt effectively with bushrangers, and in 1828 Arthur established nine police districts, each controlled by a magistrate, under a chief police magistrate in Hobart Town. By 1835, 453 policemen, mostly convicts, provided a high ratio of one policeman to every 88.7 people, which was never surpassed. Some policemen abused their powers by using violence and arresting without cause, and corruption was rife, though property and person were more secure.

Police abuses were a major reason why many colonists supported the anti-transportation campaign, and after self-government colonists demanded a more decentralised system. By 1866, 21 municipal councils controlled their own police, other areas forming eight police districts controlled by the Inspector of Police. The decentralised system had flaws. Some councillors interfered with police and expected favours for police appointments, and police were reluctant to charge councillors' relatives and friends. Laws were not enforced uniformly, and pay and conditions varied, ratepayer pressure meaning wages were often unacceptably low. Policemen could be dismissed without the right of appeal. Crime rates were low, but critics attributed this to police incompetence. In the 1870s, riots in Launceston and Hobart found police wanting. Municipal councils finally relinquished control, and the Police Regulation Act (1898) created a Tasmania-wide organisation under a police commissioner who reported to the Attorney-General, who answered to a democratically elected parliament.

Mounted police at Elwick Racecourse, 1910 (AOT, PH30/1/4649)

Police work increased within a decade. A detective branch was formed and fingerprints were taken in 1904, a new Police Act expanded powers in 1905, and police administered the Infant Life Protection Act, registered cars and issued licences from 1907. To protect police interests, the Tasmanian Police Association was formed in 1921. In the inter-war period, licensing law breaches, illegal betting and mainland criminals absorbed much police time and created suspicion of corruption. From the 1940s to the 1960s, developments included establishing Police Boys' and Girls' Clubs, creating a Police Radio Branch, improving training for detectives and using television for public relations. There were also frequent armed hold-ups, and higher workloads led to increased police number from the late 1960s. These included policewomen, introduced in 1918 and few in number until the 1960s.

In 1975 the new Rokeby Police Academy signified a desire for a first-class police service based on modern training methods. In the 1980s the police lost road safety responsibilities, but provided security for the poppy industry, sea fisheries surveillance and oversight of emergency services. Confidence in the police was diluted in the 1990s with the shooting of Joseph Gilewicz and a Launceston youth, violent confrontations at the Burnie Associated Pulp and Paper Mills, the introduction of speed cameras, and failure to solve murders of two female tourists. Confidence was restored with the advent of community policing and Crime Stoppers, the use of DNA to solve old crimes, and the efficient handling of events surrounding the Port Arthur massacre. Tasmania Police entered the twenty-first century as a modernising force committed to raising its members' education to university standard.

Further reading: G Easton (ed), Tasmania police from force to service, Hobart, 1999; S Petrow, 'Economy, efficiency, and impartiality', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 31, 1998; and 'Policing in a penal colony', Law and History Review 18/2, 2000.

Stefan Petrow