New system to trace arsonists

New system to trace arsonists 

31 October 2011

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Australia — The Federal Government has upgraded its national police database in an effort to track down suspected arsonists.

The new system allows police to add warning flags to criminal records so that suspected arsonists can be located.

Liz Hobday has more.

LIZ HOBDAY: Australia sees about 50,000 bushfires every year and arsonists are believed to be responsible for up to half of them.

As another bushfire season approaches, CrimTrac, the national information-sharing service for law enforcement, has changed the way it tracks firebugs.

Police will now be alerted to arson suspects in fire affected areas using a red flag system, even if they’re interstate.

The Minister for Home Affairs and Justice Brendan O’Connor says it will help police catch firebugs faster.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: This will allow through the agency of CrimTrac to flag people who have arson offences or arson convictions and also beyond that, provide other information where a person is suspected of being involved in arson.

This is a very important tool for police to prosecute arsonists and more importantly, to prevent bushfires occurring that cause untold damage to communities across the country.

LIZ HOBDAY: In 2009 Victoria saw the worst bushfires in Australian history. The Black Saturday fires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

About a dozen people have since been charged with arson over the fires.

Some have been judged unfit to stand trial, and one suspect, a CFA volunteer, has been quietly cleared.

Janet Stanley from Monash University is part of the Australian Bushfire Arson Prevention Initiative.

She says the new database will help deal with a major problem.

JANET STANLEY: It is a significant problem. We don’t understand fully the extent of the problem but you could be looking at 60,000 fires throughout Australia that have been deliberately lit so it’s a major problem.

LIZ HOBDAY: Janet Stanley says finding out if arsonists are near a suspicious fire is important, because firebugs tend to light fires in their own communities.

JANET STANLEY: Part of it, part of the motivation for a deliberately lit fire could be the excitement in watching the effort and the community to put the fire out but again, we don’t know a great deal about arson.

LIZ HOBDAY: She says that even though the new system is a step in the right direction, the reporting and conviction rates for arson are low and more needs to be done to identify those prone to firebug activity.

JANET STANLEY: Very hard to prove that that person lit the fire so it is very low anyway the numbers of people that are both charged with arson and then actually very low, the conviction rate. So this might be a bit of a barrier, a hurdle that has to be overcome and why I think it should be linked with some earlier stages of identification and prevention.

LIZ HOBDAY: But Brendan O’Connor says the laws need to strike a balance between protecting individuals and the community.

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