Police have a tough job. On a daily basis most general duties police have to confront difficult, often drunk, members of the public. Given the number of interactions that this State’s 16,000 police have with the public on any given day there are relatively few complaints. But there are complaints, often serious complaints, about excessive use of force by police.
Many of complaints about police use of force come from communities with a long history of poor relations with police such as Indigenous people, those with a mental illness, young people and the LGBTI community. When we take a step back at look at these incidents as a group one thing is clear: the current police oversight system is a shambolic failure.
The core of the problem is that when a critical incident occurs and a complaint is made about police actions then one group of police are used to investigate the actions of the other police. This conflict of interest lies at the heart of the police complaints system and it does no one any good.
In just the past few years we have seen case after case with compelling prima facie evidence of police brutality and excessive use of police force. However not a single case has resulted in a police officer being either demoted or dismissed, let alone charged with assault or another criminal offence. It is worthwhile at this point recalling just some of the incidents that have sparked community unrest in the past few years.
In November 2009 police were called to the home of Adam Salter by his dad. Salter was mentally ill and harming himself with a sharp knife in the kitchen. It was a frightening and dangerous incident. The most senior officer on site called out "Taser! Taser! Taser!" before shooting Salter dead with her glock pistol. What looked like a terrible tragedy and mistake was internally investigated by police. That police investigation cleared police of wrongdoing and the officers involved were in fact promoted.
When the coroner reviewed the matter (pdf) she found much of what the police had alleged was "simply not true", other parts were "almost entirely wrong", "a failure and a disgrace". The Salter’s family lawyer described it as "a whitewash" and "a cover up". Since then the Police involved have been the subject of an Ombudsman review and a Police Integrity review. Years have passed and no-one has been held to account for the tragedy.
In February 2011 Bugmy, an Indigenous man, was at his grandmother’s home in Wilcannia. When police entered he was holding a knife. His partner took that off him. He knelt on the ground with his shirt off and his hands behind his back. When he wouldn’t lay face down on the floor, police tasered him multiple times.
A magistrate found this unreasonable and excessive use of force. An internal taser review by police cleared the officers of any wrong doing. You can see the disturbing footage yourself and make up your own mind. Despite criticism from the Ombudsman, no disciplinary action has been taken against the police involved.
In January 2011 Cory Baker, a young Indigenous man, was taken to the Ballina Police Station where he said he was seriously assaulted by a group of police. An internal police investigation and report was produced. The police investigation cleared police and concluded that Baker had assaulted them.
At trial, deeply disturbing CCTV footage of the police viciously assaulting Baker was eventually produced as a result of an order by a local magistrate. The charges against Baker were dropped. These events are only now being investigated by the Police Integrity Commission. It has now come to light that a senior officer told at least one junior officer what to write in his statement for the internal investigation. That version was blatantly false. Again no disciplinary action has been taken against the officers.
In March last year a young Brazilian man, Roberto Curti, died after being handcuffed face down on the ground and repeatedly capsicum sprayed and tasered by police. Again, an internal police review produced no recommendations for any disciplinary action by the police involved. The Coroner found the attempted arrest of Roberto involved "ungoverned, excessive police use of force." The Coroner found numerous police gave untruthful accounts (pdf) of what occurred on the night.
Curti’s case was the subject of a further critical finding by the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman’s report found (pdf) that the internal police investigation was procedurally flawed, failed to consider the lawfulness of the police actions and failed to properly analyse the police use of force. To date not one officer has been charged or disciplined as a result of Curti’s death.
Just this week a further disturbing case has emerged of a police officer at the Mardi Gras throwing 18-year old Jamie Jackson to the ground on Oxford Street and then roughly placing a foot on his back. The young man appears dazed and bleeding as a result of the force with which he struck the pavement. Jackson says he was just crossing the road and did not deserve to be assaulted.
The police have said that they are holding an internal inquiry into the incident that will establish the truth of what happened. Increasingly no one believes this. As the short summary above shows, there are exceptionally good reasons to doubt the capacity of police investigating police to get to the truth in these cases.
There is an inherent conflict of interest whenever we have police investigating themselves. This cannot be resolved until NSW has a single independent police review body which is sufficiently resourced and has its own officers undertake all critical incident reviews.
Currently NSW has a patchwork quilt of police oversight bodies including the Ombudsman, the Coroner, the Police Integrity Commission and internal police reviews, which has left the bulk of critical incidents being investigated solely by police.
Even when the Ombudsman or Coroner investigates a matter they are almost wholly reliant on the initial reports and evidence provided by the internal police inquiry. These bodies often criticise police actions, but they can never take the next step and find out what happened and then hold someone to account.
A genuinely independent police complaints system is clearly required in NSW. This is not a radical approach. The UK and Northern Ireland have reformed their system and established a single independent oversight body. If the NSW public is to retain confidence in the oversight of police this is the model that NSW must adopt. For Cory, Jamie, Roberto and the rest, any further delay is simply unacceptable.
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