Sunday, June 5, 2011

Victoria police rotting from the top down

THE moment law enforcement in Victoria became, in the words of Police Association head Greg Davies, the laughing stock of the nation, can be traced to a series of extraordinary events on a Friday afternoon four weeks ago.

The trail from that day has led investigators to ask whether law enforcement in Victoria is rotting from the head, mired in a swirl of cosy relationships, abuses of power and political vendettas -- a modern version of the dark days when the state's Special Branch spied and created dossiers on anyone deemed to be their enemy.

On May 6, police chief Simon Overland walked into the Collins Street headquarters of the Office of Police Integrity and asked the watchdog to investigate his deputy, Ken Jones.

Jones had been knighted for his services to British policing and was widely seen as a likely successor to Overland. But his chief is believed to have suspected Jones of leaking sensitive information to undermine his position.

Overland then went back to police headquarters and ordered Jones to leave the force immediately. It was an act that so stunned the Baillieu government it ordered Jack Rush QC to investigate "police command structure", which is a fig-leaf for investigating the behaviour of the Labor-appointed Chief Commissioner.

Yesterday, the plot thickened when the OPI confirmed reports that it was investigating "a high-ranking Victoria Police officer currently on leave" -- a clear reference to Jones.

At the same time, the Ombudsman, George Brouwer, is reported to have begun his own investigation into the OPI's use of power.

Victoria now faces the tragi-comedy of having its police watchdog investigating the former deputy police chief at the request of the police chief, while the Ombudsman is investigating the behaviour of the police watchdog.

Meanwhile, Overland -- the man who initiated the crisis -- is the subject of the government-commissioned investigation by Rush as well as an Ombudsman's investigation into whether crime figures were manipulated on the eve of last's year state election.

Davies says yesterday's confirmation of the OPI investigation into Jones was a tipping point for Victoria. "This would appear to be one of the greatest abuses of power in the history of this state," the union chief said.

"The most invasive investigative tool put into place because a person dared to criticise their boss. Well heaven forbid any Australian would ever do that. We'd all have our phones intercepted.

"We have now reached the stage where the government has to do something. We have got law and order in this state in disarray."

The Baillieu government is holding its tongue for now, but it is also dismayed by the events and is angry at reports the OPI has bugged the phones of at least one staff member of a ministerial office as part its investigation into Jones.

The OPI is also said to have bugged the phones of Jones and his wife, as well as friends and colleagues.

OPI director Michael Strong yesterday defended his organisation, saying he was satisfied the investigation was initiated in good faith and on appropriate grounds.

Strong also denied that the investigation was "initiated solely" by information provided by Overland, but he pointedly declined to quash media reports that Overland requested the probe into his deputy.

The secretive nature of the OPI means we may never know the truth, but the Jones affair has served only to fuel the public perception that the OPI and Overland have an uncomfortably close relationship.

The OPI has aggressively pursued several of Overland's enemies or rivals, including former police union boss Paul Mullett and former assistant police commissioner Noel Ashby.

The OPI bugged their phones as part of an investigation into police corruption, but rather than wait until claims against them could be tested in court, the OPI held a public hearing that played telephone intercepts revealing their disdain for Overland and former police chief Christine Nixon. The OPI's tactics effectively ended their police careers, but neither Ashby nor Mullett were convicted.

Conversely, the OPI has appeared reluctant to examine allegations against Overland.

When Overland admitted to passing on information from secret phone taps during the 2007 police corruption investigation, Operation Briars, the OPI conducted only a cursory examination behind closed doors before clearing the Chief Commissioner.

The OPI will be disbanded later this year after a string of failed prosecutions. Its reputation has been tainted by its refusal to stay above the fray of Victoria Police politics.

It has been quick to launch probes in relation to leaks that have embarrassed Overland and has used its powers aggressively to subpoena journalists into star chambers, tap their phones and place them under surveillance.

Overland confirmed last September that police had covertly investigated the phone records of journalists at the Herald Sun in relation to a story that caused short-term embarrassment to the force.

Mullett and Ashby have alleged that Overland is too cosy with the OPI and that he is mates with several of its senior staff.

Davies said yesterday that Overland was a close friend of OPI deputy director Paul Jevtovic, the OPI's acting director when the decision was made to investigate Jones.

Strong said yesterday that any implication the OPI had launched the Jones investigation because of a friendship between Overland and Jevtovic was "false and, in my opinion, defamatory".

But the OPI is on the nose with the Victorian public and Overland is aware of the criticism that he is too close to the agency. So why would Overland risk fuelling this perception by asking the OPI to probe his own deputy rather than bypassing the OPI and contacting either the Ombudsman or even Police Minister Peter Ryan?

Both Overland and the OPI will be able to justify their actions only if a serious crime is uncovered.

If not, then they will be seen as having needlessly derailed the so-far sparkling police career of a man who is reported to have been in contention to head the state's new anti-corruption body, which will replace the OPI.

Media reports about why Overland may have been unhappy with Jones have so far speculated about possible low-level alleged media leaks in relation to the death of Carl Williams and the handling of crime statistics.

If that is all there is, then the actions of Overland and the OPI will appear churlish and politically motivated.

It would almost certainly end Overland's career.

It would also further endorse the Bailleau's government's decision to axe the OPI, which has drifted from its central charter of investigating serious police corruption to a focus on solving embarrassing media leaks.


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