It is well and truly time that NSW had an independent police oversight body. The current system sees 99% of police complaints, and all critical incident reviews, undertaken by police. The various police oversight bodies are a tangled jurisdictional mess.
Currently the Ombudsman, Coroner’s Court, Police Integrity Commission and Police Internal Affairs all exercise overlapping powers, with each agency largely dependent on the initial evidence and investigation undertaken by police.
The Ombudsman undertakes paper reviews of complaints already dealt with by police, the Police Integrity Commission fully investigates only a handful of complaints a year (normally well after the initial Police Internal Affairs investigation has been completed) and the Coroner’s Court is dependent on the police brief of evidence provided to counsel assisting.
The end result is confusion, delay and the absence of accountability. This delay not only frustrates the public but it also sees police officers’ careers on hold for months, or in some cases years, while they wait for one agency after another to complete its investigation. Everyone in the system deserves better.
In the last few months we have seen two cases where the problem has been highlighted. The first is the Sydney siege where a police critical incidents review team is being forced to investigate and pass judgement on the decisions of senior police regarding the allocation of resources, the level of co-operation with Commonwealth agencies and the decision to delay police intervention. If a relatively junior officer was to make critical findings of his or her police superiors when undertaking the review those findings would be, to say the least, “career limiting”. There is no independence in such a system.
The very recent incident on 9 February 2015 where an apparently mentally ill woman brandishing a knife was shot dead by police raises similar difficult questions. The case has striking similarities to the cases of Adam Salter and Roni Levi. While the public would expect the investigation into this incident to be independent of police, once again the death will be investigated by an internal police critical incident review team.
Police critical incident reviews of the deaths of Roberto Curti and Adam Salter were the subject of significant criticism. In each case the overlapping inquiries also produced confusion and delay. Despite the criticism, history keeps repeating and the same mistakes keep being made. What will it take for the NSW Parliament to create a single independent police complaints body to ensure that complaints are investigated independently, fairly and promptly?
You can listen to David speaking to Radio National about police oversight, particularly in the context of the Parliamentary Inquiry into the police bugging scandal.
What is the current system for police complaints in NSW?
- In NSW there is no single independent oversight body that holds police to account
- At any given time there can be five separate oversight bodies to handle complaints and reviews: the NSW Police, NSW Ombudsman, Police Integrity Commission, State Coroner & WorkCover
- Taken together this ‘system’ has proven to be an opaque, lengthy and expensive mess
- Police investigating police creates a fundamental conflict of interest between officers’ real and perceived obligations to their fellow police and their duty to the public
What does an effective police oversight body look like?
- Many people point to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) for England and Wales as a best practice police complaints and corruption body
- It has the resources and funding to ensure its own investigators are on the scene of a critical incident in the first “golden hour” after an incident occurs
- The IPCC functions as an entirely independent body—independent of police, government and complainant
- It aims to improve public confidence in police complaints, and thereby improve general confidence in the police
The government would do well to review the successful experience in the England and Wales, and commit to putting an end to the practice of police investigating police in NSW.
For more information you can read the Greens submission to to the Review into Police Oversight of Critical Incidents.