Who Cops It in the ACT


Last Friday afternoon, in the pre-weekend dead news hours, ACT Government Police Minister John Hargreaves and ACT Deputy Chief Police Officer Steve Lancaster released a few summary findings of the completed AFP internal investigation into a hit-and-run incident that took place at 12:15am on Saturday, 30 July 2005. On that night, Clea Rose, 21, was hit by a speeding car driven through the East Row bus interchange in the centre of Canberra a pedestrian area, at that time of night. Clea Rose died of her injuries three weeks later.

Clea Rose

What made this tragic event the subject of an eight-month internal investigation by the AFP was the fact that the speeding car was stolen and was being chased by a vehicle driven by ACT Police (a branch of the AFP).

Hargreaves and Lancaster said on Friday that the full report would not be released ‘at this stage,’ as police were seeking legal advice. Hargreaves then made the remarkable statement that the public did not need to see the report, because he had and it was enough for the community to take his word that the police had acted appropriately.

ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, who had previously strongly supported publishing the full report, was reported as seeking his own legal advice.

Clearly, a lot happened over the weekend, because on Monday the report and its annexure were released in full with excisions only of the names of the two police constables involved, the juvenile driver of the stolen car and its two passengers, as well as some 45 witnesses.

The report focuses on two crucial questions: first, had the pursuing police abided by the ACT Police’s National Guidelines regarding Urgent Duty Driving and Pursuits? And second, had police failed to stop and render assistance to a person injured as a result of a motor vehicle collision?

The report exonerated the police on both counts. Yet, these findings offer the most favourable interpretation of diverse eyewitness evidence and testimonies.

According to the Canberra Times 25 March report on what Hargreaves and Steve Lancaster told media on Friday:

Commander Lancaster said the investigation had found police were travelling about 80 to 100m behind the stolen car, at a speed between 40 and 50km/h when Miss Rose was hit. The officers would not have been aware the stolen car had struck her, which was why they would not have stopped to render her assistance.

The now-released police report, however, reveals a wide range of eyewitness estimates as to the relative speed of the two cars and the distance between them. The report places considerable emphasis on video camera footage recovered from two nearby sources: Greater Union Cinemas and AFP Headquarters. The former shows the police vehicle five seconds behind the pursued car. The latter was analysed by the investigation unit, which concluded that the police car was travelling at almost half the speed of the pursued car.

It is generally agreed by witnesses that the pursued car was travelling at high speeds of 60-100 kph, with most estimates towards the upper end of this scale. There is much more variation in testimony as to the speed of the police car, ranging between 40 and 90 kph.

As to why the police car could not see Clea’s body on the road, the report concluded that by the time the police car came through East Row, ‘a crowd had formed around Ms Rose who was lying on the ground near a bus shelter;’ and that the two constables ‘could not have known a collision had taken place.’

The issued report is in two parts: the internal police report, and ACT Police responses to questions raised by the Commonwealth Ombudsman Mr John MacMillan. On Friday, it was claimed in the Hargreaves-Lancaster briefing that the Ombudsman had signed off on the police report. MacMillan immediately denied this, saying the report had not addressed all his concerns, especially those relating to compliance with pursuit guidelines.

Will the belated release of the report on Monday hose down the issue after a history of delays, prevarications, veiled threats, and put-downs of public concern by the ACT Police and Hargreaves? Certainly the ACT Police would hope so, but I doubt it. The Canberra Times will stay on the case its reporting and comment over eight months has been exemplary.

Tribute to Clea Rose

The ACT Police’s report has ‘averaged-out’ the testimonies and evidence proferred during their investigation. Others (like the Ombudsman) can draw much less favourable conclusions from reading the same material.

Most disturbingly, as Jack Waterford, Editor-at-large of the Canberra Times, wrote on 28 March if the two constables followed proper pursuit procedures, and if the National Pursuit Guidelines are appropriate, who is to say this won’t happen again?

What is needed is a full coronial investigation in open court, where the police are not the sole judges of their own conduct.

It is hard to see how the ACT Chief Coroner Ron Cahill could not come to such a conclusion, though neither the ACT Police nor their Minister have yet confirmed their support for this.

The case also raises important issues about the accountability of the ACT Police Force to the government and people of the ACT or whether its basic loyalties and organisational culture are dominated by AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty and his Commonwealth Ministers, Phillip Ruddock and Chris Ellison (and ultimately, John Howard).

There are wider issues about the ACT Police’s style from the beginning of the tragic story they have been seen by many Canberrans as arrogant, self-protective and intimidatory.

Local policing is pretty boring and pedestrian compared to the glamour of Commonwealth work on issues like national security, counter-terrorism, people smuggling (remember the unanswered public questions about SIEV X) and drugs smuggling (Bali Nine), and overseas peacekeeping (Solomon Islands).

Is ACT Police a poor relation, a kind of career siding while the glittering career prizes in AFP are elsewhere?

Moreover, can a servant properly serve two masters? The AFP is already notorious for challenging the ACT Government’s legislation on counter-terrorism and sedition, which builds in more human rights safeguards than other States. In January, Keelty said on this: ‘The ACT stands to be an island within the rest of Australia if its legislation is not consistent with the other jurisdictions that surround us.’

Ruddock later supported Keelty’s comments, saying that he was ‘prudent’ to warn the Territory. ACT Chief Minister Stanhope responded that the AFP Commissioner’s comments were ‘frankly preposterous.’

It is episodes such as these that lead some Canberrans to wonder, not only whether the ACT may need another Police Minister less amenable to the Police force’s ‘counsel’ and preferences, but also whether we may need an ACT territory police force, fully answ
erable to the people of the ACT and able, over time, to build its own values and organisational culture, independent of the AFP.

If real reform in ACT policing is a result, perhaps Clea Rose’s death may not have been entirely in vain.

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