Victoria Police will axe its Multicultural Advisory Unit as part of a restructuring aimed at addressing new and emerging issues.

The news of the unit’s restructure, which for many years served the multicultural community of Victoria, led to many ethnic community groups warning that this move will create further racial tensions within the broader community.

In a police statement the Operations Co-ordination Department Review said it is positioning Victoria Police to enhance engagement with all communities across Victoria.

Speaking to Neos Kosmos a Victoria Police spokesperson said the review will not only affect the multicultural advisory unit, but also youth affairs, gay and lesbian affairs, human rights and mental health advisory units. Under the restructure, centrally based liaison officers who were formerly based in the metropolitan headquarters will be placed in regional communities.

Regional Community Engagement Inspectors, a new position that came about last year during the regional boundary restructure, will work with a project officer and liaison officers, whose roles will not be affected. “There will be no job cuts, it’s more a restructure and a change in the reporting process. Instead of reporting centrally, the officers will report directly and will address local issues,” the spokesperson said.

The idea behind the change is to target local issues, the spokesperson said. “If you take Dandenong, there’s quite a large Sudanese community so their needs will be different to somewhere like Coburg and Fawkner,” the spokesperson said. Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said the review has identified needs to rely on strong local relationships with the community so the Victoria Police can deal with issues.

Centrally, a Community Engagement Police Research and Strategy unit will be created with a multidisciplinary team with expertise in a broad range of community engagement areas. “Together that will cover multicultural affairs, indigenous affairs, youth affairs, gay and lesbian affairs and human rights,” the spokesperson said. Commander Ashley Dickinson, as Community Engagement Advisor, will report issues to the executive level. Existing roles and functions will continue, Multicultural Liaison Officers and New and Emerging Community Liaison Officers (NECLO’s) will still be placed in Victorian communities.

The review is now complete and Victoria Police is currently transitioning to a new structure and model. “There’s not a huge change happening. It’s still important to have a broader view; even though local communities will differ there still might be overarching issues,” the spokesperson said. “The current structure has worked well but the evaluation they did was looking forward, Victoria has become very diverse, we have an obligation to make sure we’re in the position to address community issues gong forward into the future and this really identified a need for that local representation.”

For services to be relevant and appropriate to a culturally diverse community a wholistic approach is required from the organisation involved, according to Mike Zafiropoulos, the former general manager of SBS in Melbourne, former mayor of Fitzroy, and active advocate for public organisations, including Multicultural Arts Victoria, the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria and Regional Arts Victoria.

“When organisations establish special units sometimes it makes the rest of the organisation feel like issues, like multicultural affairs, can just be left for that specific unit,” Mr Zafiropoulos told Neos Kosmos. Mr Zafiropoulos said it was too early to make a judgment on the restructure.

“Sometimes lumping lots of minority issues in a single unit does not do good service to any single one of them,” he said, adding “we shouldn’t just rush and condemn what is being done without knowing exactly how the responsibility of police will be discharged. It’s not an easy issue.” Looking back on government administration over the last 30 or 40 years the first response to the needs of communities was always to establish ethnic affairs offices, Mr Zafiropoulos said. “I used to be a proponent of that approach but I now think that’s not enough,” he said.

“We are better off if the whole organisation could introduce some kind of central policy where all officers are given the opportunity to learn another language and partake in cultural sensitivity training.” Sometimes these units can be of great value because they provide the rest of the organisation with a better understanding of the issues, Mr Zafiropoulos said.

“Depending on how much importance the CEO gives to that unit the more effective they can become,” he said, adding, “perhaps a combination of the whole organisation being sensitive to the needs of the community as well as a special unit might be the best way to do it”. Mr Sam Afra, the chairman of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, though, expressed his concern in regard to the proposed restructure.

“Outsourcing the unit’s role to the regions might undermine its effectiveness, its ability to collect intelligence and the ability of community leaders to discuss issues with the police” he said this week. Police Association assistant secretary Bruce McKenzie backed Mr Afra’s concerns saying that “the decision would undo years of good work.”