Can Police be trusted?

We all know that claims of excessive police force are often made by those who receive the full brunt of what can only be a humiliating experience. However, the addition of video footage makes it difficult to dismiss such complaints against NSW police as unfounded. While we must always be critical of video footage uploaded on the internet, what is evident from a YouTube video is that during the last Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras, a large policeman threw an 18 year old Jamie Jackson into the footpath.

The sickening sound of his face hitting the concrete is clearly captured by the video. While Jackson is whimpering, the policeman stands on Jackson’s back and looks around at the crowd, who are witnessing the event in shock. There was another claim of excessive police force at the event, when Bryn Hutchinson alleged he had been “thrown to the ground” after he disobeyed a direct police order not to cross the road in Darlinghurst at the parade. While it is a crime to refuse to comply with/contravene a reasonable order from Police, was the police response of throwing Hutchinson to the ground and handcuffing him appropriate in the circumstances? What was the context of the video?

The video of Jackson being thrown to the ground apparently misses the scene where Jackson attacks police officers. This aside, the available footage graphically depicts one police officer suddenly flipping Jackson over his shoulder and standing on his back for at least 20 seconds. Perhaps the most disturbing piece of the film is the repeated demands from another police officer for the camera-man to stop filming. Why did this police officer want the camera man to stop filming? Did he fear it would be used out of context? Or did he know the action was wrong?

At a protest march organised by the Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) marched to Surry Hills Police station on Friday 8th March, almost 1 000 activists demanded government intervention. It is surprising to learn that NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and the Police Minister Mike Gallacher both deny the need for an independent inquiry into the claims of police misconduct. Instead of calling for an independent inquiry, the NSW Government attempted to assuage the public with reassurances that the NSW Police Ombudsman will provide oversight to ensure the integrity of the investigation. After what can only be described as a damning report from the Ombudsman regarding the death of Brazilian national Roberto Laudisio-Curti last year, it is strange that the NSW Government believes that internal police investigations are adequate. Moreover, why has no action been taken to address the Ombudsman’s concerns?

In the Ombudsman’s 51 page report on Laudisio-Curti’s death, Ombudsman Bruce Barbour highlighted that NSW police’s internal investigation unit tends to rely on reports from the Coroner before it investigates the “lawfulness and reasonableness” of the conduct of officers during critical incidents. Barbour further describes examples where NSW Police “shirks its responsibility”. Indeed, Barbour highlights that it was not until the day the Coroner handed down its findings that the officers involved in the tasering of Laudisio-Curti had their taser certification revoked. It appears that until an outside body stated that there was a real problem with those particular officers using tasers, the Police finally relented and took action. The NSW police created a situation of extreme risk in the 8 month period between Laudisio-Curti’s death and the Coronor’s findings by allowing the four involved officers to retain their Tasers.

Barbour found it extraordinary that “not one NSW Police Force officer seemed to have formed the view that some of the involved officers may have acted inappropriately.” Indeed, it was only after the Coroner released its critical findings of the NSW Police that the NSW Police Integrity Commission announced that it will investigate allegations of police misconduct or even criminal conduct by those officers who ran down and tasered Laudisio-Curti.

The Coroner’s report into the death of Adam Salter is similar to the Laudisio-Curti investigation, in that the policemen and women involved in the shooting wantonly misled the Police Inspector and the public. Their inaccurate evidence also had the potential to mislead the Coroner. In November 2009, Adam Salter was shot dead by police while Adam was experiencing a florid psychotic episode, and was cutting himself with a knife in his Lakemba home. After the shooting, the NSW police made statements alleging that Salter was a dangerous, madman who attacked police and his family with a knife.

After an internal investigation, the Police recommended the officers involved in the shooting be awarded formal commendations. After this, an embarrassing report from the Coroner (handed down in October 2011) found that the Police internal investigation was “a failure and a disgrace.” Only a month later the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) commenced an investigation into the incident. In August 2012, with a public hearing by the Commission, it was revealed that the NSW Police Force wantonly misled the public about the reality of the incident. The 10 day public hearing closed on 7 September last year, and a final report is yet to be tabled in NSW Parliament.

While no one was killed in during Mardi Gras, the complaints question whether an internal investigation will really help change the image of violence the public increasingly ascribe to the Police force. It further makes one wonder: how the Government can deny the people’s democratic right for transparency and accountability in public office.

With the recent Ombudsman’s report and the Coronial Inquest into the death of Adam Salter, why has nothing been done by the O’Farrell Government about perceptions of Police inappropriately abusing their power? The statement by State Premier O’Farrell that all will be well with an internal investigation belittles the seriousness of the complaints made.

Police are not just an ordinary public service provider; they are the first point of criminal justice, with specialised powers and exemptions to allow them to carry out their law enforcement function. These include the ability to deny the right to liberty and freedom, and the empowerment of police with the ability to detain and question. These powers are exercised with a significant amount of discretion. Therefore, any apparent police misconduct cannot simply be brushed aside with a reassuring statement of an “internal investigation” the system urgently needs external control and adequate accountability.

Professor Senevirante, an expert on police complaints mechanisms at Nottingham Law School, highlights the problem with internal investigations as the ingrained culture of “group loyalty militates against officers testifying against each other.” Professor Maurice Punch (LSE) also highlights that Police will often “bend the rules” in order to secure high profile convictions. Like any citizen, individual police officers are subject to the criminal law and can be prosecuted for crimes they commit in the course of their duties. An independent, community based investigatory body is urgently needed for public confidence to be restored in the NSW Police force. Without this, reports of police brutality may increase in frequency and severity as violence goes unchecked.