Monday, May 30, 2011

Qld. Police investigation unchanged by report

Premier Anna Bligh is not serious about police corruption and misbehaviour

THE case for reform of the Queensland Police Service's internal complaints and disciplinary system could not have been better put than by one of its own. After a series of high-profile scandals about police investigating police, a veteran sergeant laid bare a fix to breaking the culture of protecting their own within the 10,000-strong service.

Interviewed by a government-ordered review panel into a system increasingly under attack, the frustrated officer aired the views of many in uniform.

"We should have learned our lessons from [the Palm Island experience] about police investigating police and allegations of bias, but we haven't," he told the panel of independent experts, under a condition of anonymity.

"Continually allowing police who have close relationships with each other to investigate each other does nothing for maintaining professionalism and will no doubt be heavily scrutinised down the track if files are not investigated to the satisfaction of [others in the system]".

But they didn't listen. Despite the panel this week handing down a damning report with 57 recommendations for reform, police will continue to investigate police.

The failure of the panel to proffer alternate models, including the establishment of a police ombudsman, is in stark contrast to the worrying findings of its report. It concludes the police's internal complaints and disciplinary procedures are "dysfunctional and unsustainable".

"Complaints and police are subjected to a complex, administratively burdensome, overly legalistic and adversarial process that is dishonoured by chronic delays, inconsistent and disproportionate outcomes," the 160-page report says.

The main catalyst for the review was the discredited investigation into the 2004 death in custody of Palm Island man Mulrunji Doomadgee.

Last year, the Crime and Misconduct Commission recommended disciplinary charges against six officers involved in the investigations, which were later rejected by Queensland Police.

Instead, four officers who led the initial investigation - described by deputy coroner Christine Clements as lacking "transparency, objectivity and independence" - underwent "managerial guidance" along with two senior officers who later reviewed and endorsed their probe. In the Doomadgee case and several others senior police have laid some of the blame for these investigations on the CMC.

They argue the anti-corruption watchdog, or even a new police oversight agency, should take on much more, if not all, investigations into police for no other reason than removing a perception of bias and giving the public some sense of independence. It is a fair cop. Despite a 350-strong staff, and $40 million budget, the CMC in 2009-10 investigated fewer than 2 per cent of the approximately 3500 complaints against police.

The CMC cases usually involve allegations of official misconduct warranting criminal charges or the officer's dismissal. All other complaints are automatically referred to the Queensland Police for investigation.

And many of those complaints are handed to police in the same station where the officer under investigation works. "This is where police who know each other, and may work together, investigate the other. This scenario presents an inherent conflict for objective impartial investigations, and outcomes," the report says.

The report says some police overcooked their investigations out of fear of being criticised, building huge files as they looked "down every rabbit hole", even for less serious complaints.

The practice of police investigating police was brought about by former premier Peter Beattie who, in January 2002 introduced legislation amalgamating the then Criminal Justice Commission and the Crime Commission to form the CMC.

It followed an earlier trial conducted by the CJC and police to hand over minor complaints to police as part of a "capacity building" drive across the public service to handle its own problems and, in doing so, enhance integrity.

At the time, Beattie told parliament: "In recognition of reform within the police service since the Fitzgerald inquiry [1987], the bill returns responsibility to police for investigating and dealing with police misconduct."

The amendments were also intended to free the CMC's caseload and quicken the pace of investigations.

It didn't happen. "Excessive time frames for resolution of matters continue to undermine achievement of an efficient, effective and economic system in which stakeholders and the wider community can have confidence," the report says.

After the release of the report, Anna Bligh conceded the disciplinary and complaints system needed reform to restore public confidence.

The report is open for public consultation for the next six weeks. The government's response is expected several months later. Queensland Police have not commented.

And while the panel looked at other models, including an ombudsman to handle police complaints, there is little movement in addressing the issue of police investigating police, which has undermined the system in the eyes of the public.

Instead, among the 57 recommendations the panel seeks to remove police investigators in only the most serious cases, those now handled by the CMC.

Under the reform, officers seconded to the CMC will be banned from investigating, with cases led by private investigators or interstate police brought in to the watchdog.

Terry O'Gorman, president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, says the report shows the government is not serious about tackling the "crisis of confidence" in Queensland Police.

O'Gorman says the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity provide models for recruiting outside investigators to probe complaints against Queensland's police.

" More than 90 per cent of complaints are automatically referred back to police, with some officers investigating police in their own station, who they socialise with," he says. "It is a backward step; it is not credible.

"Outside police are necessary because of the perception and, sometimes the reality of police investigating police leads to a whitewash."


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