Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Looking for the Police in Hobart

While I hold both Australian and American citizenship, culturally I'm very much an American.  So the time that we've spent here in Oz has been a chance for me to get to know my other country.  And getting to know the Lucky Country a bit better has in turn informed my perspective on the US.

That's one of the really great things about travel - it lets you see home with new eyes.  And one of the first things I noticed when we came to Oz was how few police there seemed to be.  For all the jokes you can make about Australians' convict ancestors, the contemporary nation appears very lightly policed to American eyes.

When you're spending time in a new place, things that are different appear odd.  Home is your reference for what is normal.  So it seemed odd to see so few coppers out and about in Australian towns.

But we've been in Australia long enough (four months on this visit, and nearly two years on our last) that a lightly-policed society is starting to feel pretty normal.  And that got me thinking about why you see so many police in America.

And the answer, of course, is simple - American society locks up an abnormally high proportion of its citizens.  A higher proportion than any other nation, in fact, and five and a half times the rate of incarceration in Oz.  So, to get all those people in prison, I suppose you have to hire a lot of police to do the arresting.

How few police are around in a more "normal" Western city like Hobart?  Well, I actually remember the last cop car I saw out on the street, because it startled me a bit.  And that was ten days ago.  I'm going to run a traveller's experiment and see how many more days it takes me until I see the next.

Hobart from on high.  (Although we weren't actually up there to look for the police.)


  1. If you stake out the bakery in Salamanca, you might find them dropping in for a coffee in the small hours of the morning.

    Joking aside... in New York I found the presence of so many police and security guards depressing and oppressive. I stopped going into shops because I was fed up with being eyeballed by rent-a-cops on the way in. It's just what you're used to, as you say.

    1. yeah, it does come down to what you're used to... and you don't realize what you've gotten used to until you go somewhere new...

    2. oh, and, no police sightings today, either, so we're up to 11 days. although, in fairness, Alisa says she sees them all the time...

  2. I've noticed that countries and places with less homogenous populations tend to have more police men while countries with more homogenous populations tend to have far less. And by less homogenous I am talking about differences in education, race, class etc. If everybody is the same they don't feel they need policemen to protect themselves from each other - basically everybody has the same goals and desires and is not threatened by the desires of others. Patrick

  3. hmmm.... I don't think America has the highest incarceration rate in the world because everyone feels they need the police to protect themselves from each other... I think it's because we have a large, permanent underclass that we manage with prisons.

    Anyway, that's one traveller's impression!

  4. America does have a high incarceration rate, and it also has a very diverse multi ethnic population. There are lots of good and bad things about America. And I think this is true of all countries - every country has its Adolph Hitlers as well as its Mother Teresas. And every country has the potential to have more Mother Teresas and Adolph Hitlers in the future.

    Every country is a product of its own history. People in general respond in the same ways to the same situations. Australians, Americans, Sudanese - it does not matter who they are, they all react predictably to various scenarios. There are no 'good' or 'bad' countries, or even 'good' or 'bad' people. People are people.

    I guess my main beef with your original post was I perceived it as 'America bashing'. And this bothered me - not because America is perfect - but because I am always leery of people and countries that perceive themselves as better than everyone else. This is what creates Adolph Hitlers and even George Bush jrs. I think it is healthy to look abroad for insights in how to make your own country better (America could certainly use a better health care system like Australia's), but I don't think one should look abroad to bash another country vis a vis one's own country. Each country has its own history, good and bad, and we all need to respect that.

    I don't want my children thinking their country is "better" than others. I want them to be tolerant and respectful of other peoples and nations. It is healthy to reflect on the differences between us and other cultures, and to understand that people are a product of their own history. There are no 'good' or 'bad' countries.

    Anyway, I see that I have rambled on a bit here - sorry about the thesis - and I do appreciate the dialog. It really is an interesting topic to think about. I might even have to stop saying bad things about people who live in the lower 48! Patrick

    1. Hey Mate - You might have rambled a bit... get a blog of your own! (Joking.)

      No America bashing going on, just noting how exceptional the US is in terms of incarceration rate - 25% higher than #2 in the world, Rawanda. And 53% higher than Cuba, and 194% higher than Brazil, two examples of multi-racial countries that come to mind. And, more to the point of my personal experience, the US rate is five and a half times the incarceration rate of Australia. (All the #s from wikipedia.)

      So, a bit of a tangent, since this is just a cheery blog about a very long sailing trip. The only point of the post was how spending time in a country like Oz gives me a new perspective on how much effort American society puts into incarceration.