O'Farrell Bolsters Police Powers


In his first year in the top job, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has significantly extended the NSW Police’s ability to control public order offences and criminal gangs. As concerns mount over police brutality in NSW in the wake of last weekend’s shootout in Kings Cross, legal organisations are worried the new laws are being passed too quickly to be properly scrutinised.

Several major initiatives have bolstered police powers over the last 10 months.

Anti-veil laws were introduced on 4 July last year, giving police the power to forcibly remove a woman’s veil and to impose penalties of up $5500 or a 12-month prison sentence in the case anyone refuses to comply.

On 27 September amendments to the Summary Offences Act 1988, gave police the power to "move on" drunk and disorderly individuals deemed potential troublemakers. The move extended legislation — previously only applicable to groups of three or more — allowing police to issue fines of $200 to individuals refusing warnings or to apprehend them under the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002.

By January this year consecutive drive-by shootings in Sydney’s west caught the media’s attention, with statistics showing they’d jumped by 41 per cent in the two years to December 2011

O’Farrell responded saying he was open to calls from police for new laws to force people to talk by invoking Crime Commission powers of coercion to combat a "wall of silence" around drive-by shootings.

While this is yet to eventuate, a series of month-by-month blows to the civil libertarian cause in NSW followed the announcement.

On 14 February O’Farrell replaced CityRail transit officers with a new Police Transport Command. Described by NSW Police as "the biggest change the state has seen in policing our transport corridors", the move gives officers responsibility for the entire public transport network, with security patrols (including plain clothes and bike patrols) on trains, buses and ferries.

One month later on 14 March the double whammy of the Crimes (Criminal Organisations Control) Bill 2012 and Crimes Amendment (Consorting and Organised Crime) Bill 2012 passed simultaneously through both houses of parliament.

Under the legislation the Police Commissioner now holds the power to make an application to declare a particular organisation "criminal".

According to the NSW Bar Association the traditional rules of evidence do not apply to the hearing of such an application, allowing the decision to be based on confidential police intelligence rather than any publicly proven criminality.

The Commissioner is also free to seek control orders over individual members of the "declared organisation" prohibiting them from associating with each other.

The anti-consorting provisions mean police can give anyone an official warning not to contact a person previously guilty of an offence. The person who receives the warning may not have been involved in any criminal activity or have any criminal knowledge or history. But if the person then contacts the convicted offender, including by SMS, the police can arrest and charge them with a maximum three years in prison.

The laws could ultimately allow police to lawfully monitor telephone conversations, text messages and emails, and use them as evidence of consorting.

Originally introduced under Labor, the High Court threw out the legislation, accepting claims it infringed personal liberties and undermined normal rules of evidence.

But Barry O’Farrell last week added to the laws, moving to amend the Criminal Organisations Act to give the NSW Police Commissioner the final say on just who exactly is "fit" to run tattoo parlours, alongside a number of other "traditional" bikie haunts such as tow truck/smash repair shops and security guard details.

The legislation will be introduced to parliament next month, with the police reportedly set to obtain the right to use drug-detection dogs to patrol and enter tattoo parlours without a search warrant.

In a letter to the Attorney General Greg Smith before the simultaneous passing on March 14 of the Crimes (Criminal Organisations Control) Bill 2012 and Crimes Amendment (Consorting and Organised Crime) Bill 2012, the NSW Bar Association argued it was "completely inappropriate that legislation… should be passed so quickly, with no consultation or opportunity for debate".

The NSW Bar Association said it had only been made aware of O’Farrell’s move to stop bikie gang members owning tattoo parlours by media reports.

"The first we learnt about it was in the media on Friday, that was the first we knew they were rolling out this new legislation at the request of the police," said the NSW Bar Association’s Legal Aid Committee member Phillip Boulton SC.

"Neither the Bar Association, the NSW Law Society or the Legal Council were consulted that I’m aware of," said Boulton.

Dr Arlie Loughnan, Senior lecturer with the Sydney Institute for Criminology, agrees with the NSW Bar Association.

"These extensions to police power are rolling out fairly frequently and fairly quickly," she told New Matilda.

"It reduces the opportunity for consultation and dialogue and discussion. If there’s not enough time between something being announced and implemented it really compromises the ability of players in the system to make their views known."

"It’s a continuation of what is a really long trajectory in NSW of this kind of law and order auction and race to the bottom," Loughnan said.

"It’s not new. But it’s surprising only because the Coalition didn’t have to nail their colours to the mast during the election in the same way as would have been necessary had [the election]not been such a done deal."

When contacted by New Matilda for comment the Premier’s office said it "totally rejected" criticisms that the rollout of new police powers is occurring too quick to allow for debate by legal bodies.

In an interview with AAP on the anniversary of his first year in office last month, the Premier said his team still had a "hell of a lot more to do".

With NSW police still pushing for powers to coerce witnesses of drive-by shootings, it’s possible O’Farrell’s police state is set to get bigger still.

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