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Police investigating police

By Nigel Powell - posted Tuesday, 8 June 2010


I loved being a police officer with all its ups and downs, stresses and strains. I have had a few jobs in my time but never one that has taught me so much about life and myself as being a copper.

So it is with incredibly mixed emotions I await the imminent release of the Crime and Misconduct Commission's report on the Queensland Police Service's investigation into the death in custody on Palm Island in 2004.

If the report is as critical as has been leaked, it could be another chance for a defining moment for the Queensland Police Union. For once again they can choose whether to help their members move on to become a professional body or they throw up the barricades, attack their critics and blindly defend those police who have let the majority of their compatriots and the notion of police professionalism down badly.

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There isn't a single police force in the country that doesn't have problems investigating its own. And in all jurisdictions it can either be helped or hindered by the approach taken by the relevant Union. They need to support their members and there needs to be a presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, but the Unions also need to support the application of the same standards of investigation into their members as they do into allegations about non-police. That will not happen unless the police who investigate other police truly consider those other police to be suspects. And then treat them as suspects just as they would any other suspect.

This does not happen very much in Queensland. And by not supporting such an approach the QPU disregards the interests of all of its other members.

Because they readily have the ear of their members the QPU is in the ideal position to help shift the extremely positive parts of police culture such as dedication, selflessness and the desire to help others into much better self regulation.

If they don't, I suspect that at some stage in the near future they will inevitably have to face an external organisation that will aggressively deal with any incompetent, biased, racist, brutal, lying officers and those that support or supervise them.

The barrier to proper investigation seems principally to revolve around a misguided sense of loyalty to one's fellow officers. There is in all police forces a very strong notion of “don't dob on your mates”. He or she may be the one who will come to help you out of the next difficult spot you get into. And after all, no one else understands the difficulties of policing etc. etc.

However, one of the fundamental requirements for effective policing is community relations. There appears to be little appreciation by the majority of police officers and the Union about the extent of the damage done to these relations by the actions of the few police who are happy to lash out, verbal or cover up illegality.

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One of the problems is that within the force, these can often be the ones who are the life and soul of the party around the BBQ. They are the ones who trumpet the solidarity line and the “us and them” approach the loudest.

To me though, it all depends upon your definition of “mate”. I don't have any mates who are so weak as to ask me to cover up for the things they do that are wrong. My mates not only would not want me to cover up for them, they would not even wait to be found out. They would have the courage to fess up and take the consequences of their mistakes so that no one else suffered.

Genuine mistakes are one thing. Deliberate, thoughtless or self indulgent actions that harm others disqualify the “mate” status for those events.

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About the Author

Nigel Powell was a police officer in England and Queensland. In 1987 he was involved in the establishment of the Fitzgerald Royal Commission in Queensland, and before that worked closely with the investigations of The Courier-Mail and the ABCs Four Corners program. Subsequently, he spent two years as a senior education officer for the New South Wales Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC).

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