Police should not investigate police

Police investigations of deaths in custody and alleged abuses were not satisfactory in the 1980s: they remain unsatisfactory today, says Tamar Hopkins, whose community legal centre leads a nationwide push for better accountability mechanisms. She explodes myths about why civilians can’t investigate police.

Myths block independent investigation

By Tamar Hopkins*

Lex Lasry, now a Judge in the Victorian Supreme Court, was Counsel Assisting at the Inquest into the police shooting death of Jedd Houghton on 17 November 1988.  In that inquest, he noted that the police investigation into Houghton’s death was seriously flawed because the police had started from the assumption that the shooting was justified.  This  problem occurs, he said, when the police are left to investigate themselves.

In 2012, Four Corners played footage of the police investigation into the shooting death of Adam Salter in NSW.  Police investigators in that footage were seen attempting to justify how a police officer could yell “Taser, Taser, Taser” then shoot a person with a gun.   The Coroner in his 2011 findings formed the opinion that the police investigation was seriously flawed and very unreliable.

Police investigations of deaths in custody and allegations of human rights abuses were not satisfactory in the 1980s.  They remain unsatisfactory today.

No Australian State or Federal Government has been serious about ensuring that police who kill or harm are held to account where their actions are unlawful.  Without accountability, a culture of impunity is created, undermining any attempts to reform the culture.

Michael Williams, (now Superintendent) in a 2009 Report for Victoria Police released under a Freedom of Information request noted that inappropriate training within Victoria Police had lead to: “over a decade of policing in Victoria, where operational police have not been exposed to the ‘fundamentals’ underpinning operational safety training.”   These observations expose the fact that attempts to genuinely reform the overuse of force in Victoria have been undermined by something more powerful: a culture of violence very resistance to change.

Reform predicated on accountability

Reform of cultures that use and abuse force requires the enduring and consistent prioritisation, training and re-enforcement of alternatives to force in the resolution of all incidents. This will not occur in an accountability vacuum. Reform is predicated on the existence of effective accountability when police powers are abused and particularly when their abuse results in the death or harm of a member of the public.

Why has so little been done to ensure police are independently investigated when they abuse their powers in Australia?  Enduring myths are part of the problem.

Myth one: Civilians can’t investigate police. Civilians are the first instance investigators of police killings in Northern Ireland, England, New Zealand and Ontario, Canada.  Very quickly, civilian investigators become experts in this area of investigation.

Myth two: Civilian investigation is too resource intensive.  All proper investigation is resource intensive.  The question is whether to resource the police to do it ineffectively, or to resource an independent agency?  In BC, Canada, Police Chiefs have asked the Government to let them get on with business of policing with an independent civilian agency to do all investigations.

Myth three: Civilians can’t get there on time. Civilian investigators in Northern Ireland pride themselves on their rapid response to an incident.  In Ontario Canada, they have regional investigation teams and use aeroplanes to get to remote area.

Myth four: Police will refuse to co-operate with civilian investigators.  Civilian investigators do need to have strong legislation enforcing their access to internal police files and information, and requiring police to participate in investigations.  Poorly drafted powers have caused problems for civilian investigators.  So too has political interference.  In 1988, the civilian Police Complaints Authority in Victoria was shut down by the Government under pressure from the Police Association, after two very effective years at the job.  These concerns however can be resolved through proper design and legislation.  It is worth noting that surveys of police in Northern Ireland indicate widespread support for and co-operation with independent civilian investigation.

Myth five: Complaints are internal matters that should be left to police managers. This myth ignores the fact that many complaints involve allegations of criminal offences, such as assaults. Furthermore, they frequently involve a victim who is a member of the public.  Other agencies refer criminal matters to the police for investigation.  However when the agency against which the allegation is made is the police, we have a problem.  Police managers have a role in ensuring police are effectively trained and complete their documentation.  They do not need to investigate complaints to fulfil their role.

Myth six: Oversight cures biased investigations. The gun that Graeme Jensen was alleged to have waved at the police who shot him was never fingerprinted.  If it had been and Graeme’s fingerprints had been found on it, allegations that it was planted by the police who shot him would be less persuasive. Neither were the police involved in his shooting immediately separated and interviewed. As a result it is possible they colluded to explain their otherwise criminal actions.  Immediate independent investigation is critical to collect and preserve all evidence and prevent collusion. Oversight by police cannot cure these deficiencies and results in criminal actions by police going undetected. 

In 2012, police are investing their own role in the death of NT Aboriginal man Terrance Briscoe who, it is alleged, was assaulted by police shortly before he died.  NSW Police are also investigating their own role in the death of Brazilian man Roberto Laudisio Curti who was allegedly stunned multiple times despite appearing to pose no threat to anyone’s safety. 

Both deaths sparked calls for independent investigation.  The NSW Government stated that the NSW Ombudsman will “oversight” the NSW police investigation.  However this is nothing new and not a solution.  What is needed is the overhaul of the entire practice of police investigating their own. 

Tamar Hopkins is principal solicitor for the Flemington & Kensington Community  Legal Centre Inc in inner-suburban Melbourne.  This article appeared first in New Matilda, the online journal: http://newmatilda.com/2012/05/29/police-must-not-investigate-their-own

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