More than 95% of north Queensland children on internal police ‘blacklist’ are Indigenous

More than 95% of the children being actively monitored and targeted by police and youth justice authorities in north Queensland are Indigenous, according to data from a repeat offender “blacklist” obtained by Guardian Australia.

First Nations leaders and local elders say punitive government policies and police-led responses to youth crime in Queensland have disproportionately focused on First Nations children, and amount to unlawful racial profiling.

Jenny Pryor, a Bindal woman and former commissioner of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, compared the “rounding up” of First Nations children in Townsville to the removal of members of the stolen generations.

This week the Queensland parliament passed new youth justice laws, parts of which will override the state’s Human Rights Act and will allow police to arrest young people, without considering potential alternatives, if they suspect they are likely to contravene bail conditions.

Related: Queensland passes controversial youth crime laws after heated human rights debate

The government says its strategies are deliberately designed to target a cohort of “serious repeat offenders”.

Since 2021, youth justice authorities and police have maintained a Serious Repeat Offender Index (SROI), designed “to identify and therefore respond in a targeted way” and to “provide greater vision” to police on that same cohort.

Youth justice and police sources have told Guardian Australia the list was designed partly to facilitate intensive interventions for young people, involving youth justice workers and police.

But they say the SROI had become a “dangerous blacklist” amid a dramatic shift in government policy and rhetoric on youth crime, which has promoted police-focused responses, more triggers for arrest, and more punitive measures for the targeted cohort of young people.

Youth justice data shows 70% of the 401 children on the SROI across Queensland are Indigenous. That is in excess of the Indigenous population in youth detention (62%), the rate of Indigenous kids sentenced (44.6%), and the total Queensland First Nations population (4.6%).

In the far-north Queensland region, 95% of the children on the SROI are First Nations. In north Queensland, the number is 97%.

The data shows the total cohort on the SROI is spread relatively evenly across different regions in Queensland. But public debate about youth crime, government announcements and policing operations are most-often focused on the north, where community concern about crime is often heightened, and where the cohort being targeted is overwhelmingly Indigenous.

Police recently conducted Operation Uniform Theta, a statewide high-visibility operation which was established to “have a specific focus” on north Queensland, in particular the northern cities of Townsville, Cairns and Mount Isa. Ultimately the operation also involved heavy police activity in north Brisbane, after the high-profile death of Emma Lovell.

Guardian Australia asked police for data from Operation Uniform Theta, including the ages and First Nations status of those arrested. A spokesperson said police “usually only identify race when describing a missing person”.

‘We’re harming them for life’

First Nations teenagers in Townsville have told Guardian Australia about recent encounters with police, including being “hassled” and having officers take their photographs with no apparent justification.

Related: Queensland committee backs overriding human rights for new youth laws as striking ‘appropriate balance’

Dean*, a 14-year-old, said last week he was with a group of friends in a park, across from the Willows shopping centre in Townsville’s outer suburbs, when police officers approached them.

“They just asked what are we doing, what are we doing here, what are we doing. They took a photo of us,” Dean said.

Pryor, a respected elder in the Townsville community, said there were clear differences in the way First Nations people were policed. She said there was “one law for this side, and one law for that side”.

“Communities are crying out to take back control of their kids, but they need the resources to do it,” she said. “But they keep us in welfare, keep us incarcerated, and everyone’s got lots of jobs.”

Hannah McGlade, a Noongar woman and a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said the data “clearly” showed racial profiling, which is prohibited under international law.

“Law enforcement has a duty to address racial profiling, to have education measures and ensure they’re not racially profiling,” McGlade said.

“In this case there seems to be no cognisance of that … this reflects a wider problem in Australia where our policing has not acknowledged and addressed racism.

“We have a failure as a nation where police target Indigenous youth in this manner. We are damaging Indigenous youth, we’re harming them for life through these practices.”

The Queensland government, in its statement explaining the laws passed this week were incompatible with the Human Rights Act, noted the changes would have “a greater impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

In response to questions, the Department of Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs said the SROI was based on data – including the seriousness and frequency of offending, and the age of a young person.

Damian Bartholomew, from the Youth Advocacy Centre, said community organisations that provided support to children were not aware how the index worked, or who was listed on it.

“Our organisation does not receive any information about those young people … we are not told who those young people are,” he said.

Bartholomew said he was concerned the index functioned similarly to problematic “suspect target management plans” used by police in New South Wales, which were found to amount to “harassment” and involve potentially unlawful tactics by the state’s Law Enforcement Conduct Commission.

Concerns about the SROI include the danger that frontline policing practices will be prejudiced by government policies and rhetoric demanding a crackdown on repeat young offenders, and lists identifying those offenders as overwhelmingly First Nations children.

Related: Evidence refutes claims of youth crime wave, former Queensland children’s court boss says

A spokesperson from the Department of Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural affairs said the SROI list was “only shared with authorised youth justice staff and multi-agency collaborative panels, including police officers on those panels and the youth justice taskforce”.

Young people are not aware they are on the list “as this could adversely affect their behaviour”.

“Youth justice and QPS staff work collaboratively to ensure services and interventions for young people provide the most effective supports for their individual circumstances,” the spokesperson said.

“The overwhelming majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people are thriving in the community, however addressing the over-representation in the youth justice and child safety systems remains a priority.”

The department said recent youth justice reforms include increased investment in “evidence based” intervention programs to prevent offending.

Guardian Australia sent several questions to the Queensland police service (QPS), including whether controls were in place to ensure the SROI was not used in a way that amounted to racial profiling, and why police operations and resources had been focused on areas where the SROI had a greater proportion of Indigenous children.

In its response, the QPS did not address those questions or make any specific reference to Indigenous people.

“Each child has a unique experience and background which must inform an appropriate response,” a QPS spokesperson said.

“The QPS employ a number of strategies aimed at early intervention, keeping children out of court and custody, and reducing the number of young people re-offending.

“For the cohort of children who are at high risk of re-offending and who are subject of bail conditions, the QPS ensure that appropriate engagement is undertaken through bail visitations, which is fundamental to community safety.”

Police said they regularly engaged in “stop and speak” activities with community members, and might seek to identify people via taking a photograph.