Policing issues

Terrence Odgers discusses matters of concern regarding the police force, the effects of the Wood Royal Commission, and their impact upon present-day policing and services to the public.

Most NSW residents are unaware that the state Police Force is not as effective in combating crime as it used to be. Most would also be unaware that there is a significant issue of manning levels, which over the past few years has become more pronounced.

Many police stations throughout the state have been permanently or temporarily closed due to the lack of police officers to man them. This action has left some communities exposed to the local and outside criminal element which have on occasions run rampant to the point where local residents have been forced to form vigilante groups to combat them.

This situation is appalling and the residents of this state deserve better than what the current state Labor government is giving them.

Instead of the authorities providing more police to man those vacant police stations, or mounting a task force to combat the criminals, the authorities get their spin doctors to trot out statistics about what a good job the police are doing in combating crime, which only insults the intelligence of those that are moved to complain in the first place.

Local citizens, who have been compelled to act as vigilantes due to inaction by the very authorities who are supposed to protect them, are instead threatened to desist in their efforts of tackling local crime at the risk of incurring the full force of the law!

While law enforcement officials may deem it undesirable to have armed and vigilant citizens out on the streets with the intention of preventing crime, the average citizen is entitled under the law to protect and defend his property.

Section 352. (1) of the NSW Crimes Act of 1900 states:
Any Constable or other person may without warrant apprehend
a) any person in the act of committing, or immediately having committed, an offence punishable, whether by indictment, or on summary conviction, under any act,
b) any person who has committed a felony for which he has not been tried,
and take him and any property found upon him, before an authorized Justice to be dealt with by law.

This statute is what is often referred to as ‘citizens arrest’ and may be used by anyone in this state who is not a sworn Police officer to arrest any person who has been seen to commit or having been known to commit a felony or misdemeanour offence.

In effect, it empowers the ordinary citizen to detain an offender until police arrive to take over the arrest. So what is a vigilante?

In the Macquarie Dictionary a vigilante is described as a member of a vigilance committee, in other words a member of a committee formed for the protection of individual or group property or welfare.

To be able to defend yourself, your family, your street or small town is a basic right in common law which the authorities would rather that you do not put into practice.

But when there is no law enforcement available to protect individuals or groups from those who wish to steal or damage our property or worse, commit us harm, who is responsible for our protection?

The average citizen is entitled to be provided with adequate protection by the authorities from those elements within society which would otherwise prey on him or cause him harm. This is every citizen’s right!

Yet the incidence of violent crime and the viciousness of some of the assaults along with break and enters has skyrocketed.

In this regard there is an almost arrogant lack of concern by the authorities for the average citizen outside of the big cities and this is very evident in the Hunter Valley which is the fastest developing area in the State. After all, those communities affected by this are only trying to provide a safe environment for their families. But why has it got to this stage?

Prior to the Wood Royal Commission being convened into alleged police corruption in 1996, there had been a concerted effort for an inquiry from some independent N.S.W. Parliamentarians into a pedophilia ring, which was allegedly operating within the N.S.W. Parliament and the state Judiciary. Some police officers of commissioned rank were also mentioned as being accessories to this very sordid tale.

At that time, the newly elected Premier, Bob Carr, when faced with these allegations conveniently sidestepped the whole issue by initiating a commission into alleged police corruption only. Although this did not sit well with those independent MPs who had been screaming the loudest, they were eventually and effectively silenced by political retaliation instigated, some would say, at Carr’s behest.

So the Wood Royal commission started its proceedings in 1996 and wound up its findings in late 1997. In its nearly two years of operation what did the commission find? Basically, a small number of detectives were found guilty of corruption by taking bribes from well-known criminals and were sacked from the force, some going to jail.

While the commission may have exposed some undesirable practices within the force, overall, the findings were hardly a revelation.

It must also be taken into account that those Detectives who were named and blamed were the product of a policing system that, at times, encouraged the kind of behaviour that brought them under notice in the first place.

Prior to the Royal Commission and simmering in the background before then Police Commissioner, Tony Lauer’s retirement, was the hostility between the Commissioner and the Liberal Police Minister at the time, Ted Pickering.

To Lauer’s credit he had been fighting against the creeping political interference that Pickering was trying to force onto his office. The pressure being brought to bear caused so much friction between the two players that it boiled over into the public arena in 1995. And with the demise of the Liberal government in 1995 and the coming to office of the Labor government under Bob Carr, I guess you could think that Tony Lauer breathed a sigh of relief with the departure of his adversary. However this was short lived as the new Police minister, Paul Whelan, picked up where Pickering had left off but possessed a more zealous attitude than Pickering ever had.

Tony Lauer retired in 1996 and left the door open for a new Commissioner. Police Minister Whelan, who – for political reasons – deemed anyone unsuitable from the then NSW Police Service to take the top police job, subsequently advertised overseas for a new commissioner.

Whelan totally ignored a number of suitably experienced high ranking officers, any one of whom would have made a reasonable Commissioner, for an import from overseas named Peter Ryan.

In the event of his arrival, Ryan proved to be very popular with the media and public. He was feted as the darling of Sydney society and drew crowds wherever he went. Unfortunately as events would prove later, this was his only appeal, and he was totally inept as a NSW Police Commissioner.

At his first press conference he was asked by one of the journalists what he thought about Roger Rogerson (Rogerson was a discredited ex-cop who had served time for criminal activities while employed as a detective), Ryan said in response, “Who is Roger Rogerson?” This was hardly a good start to the top police job!

Ryan was also politically naïve and it was because of this that his office became heavily politicized. Prior to his fall from grace in 2002, his very enthusiastic supporter and promoter, Paul Whelan, resigned from office and some would say, at Bob Carr’s request.

While employed as Commissioner, Ryan instigated some very disturbing and damaging reforms to the then NSW Police Service. One of the most damaging reforms, I believe, that Ryan introduced is the one that placed all commissioned officers, that is from Inspector and above, onto contracts which were renewable every two years. Anyone who was deemed not to be performing was booted out.

I can well remember the panic that these summary sackings engendered amongst middle management at the time, as no-one was considered safe in their position.

Those officers in charge of Local Area Commands (LAC), usually Superintendent or above, had to attend special meetings in Ryan’s office, called OCRs (Operational Crime Reviews) every three months to quantify their performance in the lowering of crime, budgets etc. and this had to fit in with the government’s agenda, whose media branch would then let little stories out from time to time to inform the public of what a good boy Peter Ryan was.

At first those local commanders who were honest enough to admit to not providing what Ryan wanted to hear had their contracts pulled, which effectively ended their hard-earned careers.

On the surface this may have looked and sounded good but in reality it proved a total failure. Commanders soon wizened up that if they did not start to tell Ryan what he wanted to hear, their careers would also be over. In effect, this policy drove a large wedge between the Commanders and the Commissioner.

I can remember my boss one day psyching himself up to attend his OCR. To see the worry and concern on the face of this normally affable and thoughtful Superintendent was sobering. It made me realize at the time that Ryan could not have been much of a man manager if he had to terrorize his Commanders to get them to toe his line.

The advent of the OCRs produced a more devious side in some Commanders to hold onto their jobs.

An example of just how devious things could become was in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta during the late 1990s.

Cabramatta was also known as Little Vietnam (or Vietnamatta). After the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese wishing to escape communism and head for Australia, chose Cabramatta in which to settle.

In time, criminals within the community – not satisfied with their government handouts and extortion rackets they had orchestrated against Vietnamese businesses – soon found better pickings by selling drugs.

By the mid-nineties the drug peddling had become so blatant that the public began to speak out. After Ryan started as Commissioner and introduced his OCRs, the government was beginning to get some bad press on Cabramatta and pressured Ryan to do something about it.

Ryan’s bright idea was to exclude any reference to drugs or drug-related crime in his OCR meetings.

The commander of Cabramatta LAC, who was fully aware of the drug problem within his jurisdiction, bowed to pressure and fell in with Ryan that drugs were no longer a problem in that area.

He also saw fit to pay lip service to Ryan’s so-called Policing Initiatives, which was to install CCTV cameras on the problem streets – which in reality only caused the drug dealers to move on to where they could not be detected.

Every three months this commander would attend the meeting in Ryan’s office and tell the Commissioner what he wanted to hear. This of course made the Commander happy, the Commissioner happy and the Government happy – which then peddled the lie to the general public with the intention of placating their fears.

Meanwhile in Cabramatta, the streets were literally awash with drugs. Street police operating out of Cabramatta Police Station were overwhelmed by the sheer number of dealers blatantly selling their destructive concoctions. And so blatant had some of these dealers now become that some deals were being done outside the police station in full view of the cops!

Concerned police were continually calling on their Commander to increase street patrols so as to target drug dealers. The street police were totally ignored and virtually told to look the other way when seeing deals being done as the arrests would embarrass the Commander.

Eventually it all came to a head when a Detective Sergeant from Cabramatta Police Station, Tim Priest, and a psychological anthropologist, Richard Basham, got together. This duo, with the help of other police and a well-known talk back radio presenter, finally forced the state government to hold an enquiry into the drug problem.

This inquiry eventually led to the Commander’s transfer and set the first step for the Commissioner’s fall from grace.

It should be pointed out here that Peter Ryan had very little policing experience on the beat. He was the product of rapid promotion due to the emphasis placed on educational qualifications which police forces world-wide now placed on their officers.

In other words, Ryan was all theory with no practical experience from which he could draw on to do his job effectively.

Prior to Ryan’s arrival, promotion within the then NSW Police Service was by seniority. This meant that all promotions had to be met with a prior amount of time served in a position before elevation to a higher rank through examination.

For example, on graduation from the Police Academy an officer spent one year as a probationary constable and four years as a constable. After five years service and passing a promotional examination the officer would earn one stripe, being classed as a constable first class. This position was then held for a further five years whereupon completing ten years service the officer could apply to become a senior constable and so on.

Given that the standards at the time for individual academic skills were not as demanding as they are now, it is understandable why on the job experience counted for promotion.

In the 1990s promotions through seniority was scrapped for a perceived academic skill level. The new promotion system paved the way for the acceleration of some very mediocre officers into management positions for which action the Force is still feeling the repercussions.

There is a crisis in the NSW police with retaining officers, including detectives, and just one of the reasons for this is the lack of promotional opportunities within all ranks.

I personally know several ex-detectives who jumped on the promotional bandwagon from 1998 to become commissioned officers.

This clamber for higher ranking and wages quickly led to a drastic shortage of numbers within the Detective ranks state-wide. So much so that street police (general duties) who are not equipped to deal with certain categories of crimes, and as front-line police do not have the time to adequately and properly follow up investigations, are now being tasked to perform some traditional detective duties.

This is wrong and provides an inadequate investigation into crimes which should be investigated thoroughly.

This tasking is the direct result of a very misguided promotional system which promotes on education with an element of cronyism, rather than education and experience.

I have seen street police with ten years service or less be promoted to Inspector or above with no man management skills whatsoever (which plays merry hell with those under them) or without the experience to adequately carry out their position.

I have worked with young Chief Inspectors whom I found wanting in their position as a boss. Some were intelligent but had no common sense and were totally out of their depth at incidents at which a good Senior Constable could have adequately handled. Some even had to be reminded of their duties!

On a seniority promotional system to reach Inspector or above an officer would have had to spend between fifteen and twenty years in the job.

While I do not advocate going back to that antiquated system, it must be insisted that experience on the job counts for more than academic theory. It has often been said that you don’t need to be an Einstein to be a cop, just good common sense and learning skills.

During Police Minister Paul Whelan’s tenure, for which he had absolutely no policing experience, he introduced a higher academic level requirement for all aspiring police officers.

I question here the need for someone to attend a University type institution for a job that requires strong nerve, a sense of fairness, strength of character, strong leadership ability, but above all good common sense.

These requirements are not teachable, not in a theoretical sense. A nineteen year old cannot learn these traits at College, as life experience is the only teacher here and academic theory is wanting for adequately preparing ordinary citizens to become police officers and properly handle the reality of life on the streets.

Commissioner Ryan was very big on anti-corruption issues. After all, this was THE issue that brought the Royal Commission into existence. So the Commissioner was very adamant about being seen to be a leader of an uncorrupted Police Service.

He was once asked a question by an intrepid reporter if he, as Commissioner, considered the half-price McDonald’s meal for police officers, when visiting their establishments whilst on duty, as a corruption issue. Ryan answered in the affirmative and made a suggestion that all his officers should avoid receiving their McDonald’s meal at any discounted rate.

A few weeks later word got out about Ryan and his wife receiving two free tickets to attend the Rugby League grand final with seats in the VIP area. When the same intrepid reporter asked Ryan if he considered the free tickets to be a corruption issue Ryan clearly looked embarrassed as he replied in the negative!

To be fair to Ryan, he had inherited a position that was a political minefield. Not only had he to contend with an incompetent Police Minister, whose agenda was to instill into the office of Commissioner the government’s political tentacles, he had also to contend with some senior officers who should have supported his efforts at reforms, but instead, through intrigue and innuendo, sabotaged his every move.

While Whelan’s successor, Michael Costa, also known as ‘Mr. Fixit’, very diligently went about reforming some aspects of the now NSW Police Force, there is still a lot that needs to be done.

My opinion will be continued in the next issue of Destiny.

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