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Two decades after Fitzgerald inquiry, police culture still needs change

9 October 2010 3,297 views No Comment

THE extraordinary revelations at the Fitzgerald inquiry between 1987 and 1989 shattered the public’s confidence in the Queensland police force, destroyed the then National Party state government, and led to the election of the first Queensland Labor government in 32 years.

The head of the inquiry, Tony Fitzgerald, identified widespread police and political corruption and the use of selected leaks to manipulate journalists and makers of public opinion, along with other matters of significant malfeasance.

As Fitzgerald said in his report: “The media is able to be used by politicians, police officers and other public officials who wish to put out propaganda to advance their own interests and harm their enemies.

“A hunger for ‘leaks’ and ‘scoops’ (which sometimes precipitate the events they predict), and some journalists’ relationships with the sources who provide them with information, can make it difficult for the media to maintain its independence and a critical stance.”

Twenty-one years later the Queensland Police Union is still showing how adept it is at public manipulation. Every time there is an incident involving the behaviour of a Queensland police officer, the union quickly makes a spokesperson available or issues a statement attempting to exonerate the officer.

The public understands the union’s support for its members, but the union’s constant dismissal of allegations of inappropriate police behaviour before they are properly investigated is a worrying trend.

It is all about manipulating public opinion. Police officers have considerable powers and should never be above the law.

Thus, while it can defend its members, the union still refuses to understand that there needs to be a fundamental change in culture.

Fitzgerald recommended the establishment of the criminal justice commission, now the Crime and Misconduct Commission, to investigate improper police behaviour. However, the Queensland police union does not wait for the results of any CMC investigation but rushes to immediate vindication of its members.

Media outlets today are at the same risk of being manipulated as they were in the 1970s and 80s. The media needs to be ever-vigilant against manipulation by the union. Pressures from the 24-hour media cycle, deadlines and media competition to get the story first expose media to easy manipulation.

Fitzgerald acknowledged in his report that “this places an extra responsibility on the journalist”.

The CMC should meet representatives of the Queensland Police Service and the union to establish appropriate protocols to ensure the union’s comments do not prejudge any CMC inquiry; or, when the police union takes a public position that in effect would clear an officer of any wrongdoing, the CMC should hold a public hearing into the allegations so justice is not only done but seen to be done.

Public confidence in the CMC and the Queensland Police Service has not been helped by the Bligh government’s incompetent handling of the extension of the Queensland Police Commissioner’s contract, which resulted in an unsavoury spat between the CMC and the government. The CMC is required by law to be consulted about the commissioner’s contract, but the Bligh government failed to do so.

It is difficult to excuse such government incompetence and it does not inspire confidence in Police Minister Neil Roberts or his staff. This is a serious decision for any police service and should have been a government priority, not an afterthought.

The Queensland government was subsequently forced to extend the commissioner’s contract by only two years by exercising an extension option in the commissioner’s old contract. This removed the requirement for CMC approval.

But the problem with the commissioner’s contract did not end there.

Commissioner Bob Atkinson had been caught up in an argument with the CMC over the disciplining of six police officers involved in the investigations of the brutal death on Palm Island of indigenous man Cameron Doomadgee. CMC chairman Martin Moynihan had indicated that approval for Atkinson’s reappointment might not be forthcoming unless proper action was taken.

Subsequently the state Supreme Court ruled that Atkinson could not be involved in any disciplinary proceedings against the officers because of the pressure brought by the CMC on him to make a decision on the disciplining.

The public could be forgiven for feeling annoyed and confused but not the police union. The union had funded the Supreme Court action for Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson and Detective Senior Sergeant Raymond Kitching, and union president Ian Leavers said the court decision had left the CMC’s reputation “in tatters”.

The crucial relationship between the Commissioner and CMC chairman appears strained and the police union is doing its best to put pressure on both.

There is no love lost between the police union and the CMC. The union has never supported the CMC since it was established following the Fitzgerald inquiry and deeply resents its power to make police accountable for their actions.

The CMC for its part has done its reputation no favours by taking far too long to investigate the Palm Island tragedy.

However, the CMC is the key body that can prevent the police service from sliding back to the corrupt old days.

It was one of Fitzgerald’s wisest recommendations, and ended the corrupt, authoritarian regime of the Bjelke-Petersen government and the old, endemically corrupt Queensland police force.

Sadly, while all this has been going on, justice has not been forthcoming for Doomadgee, who lost his life in a police cell on Palm Island.

In Queensland, when it comes to policing, it seems that the more things change the more they stay the same.

The Weekend Australian, October 9-10, 2010