Saturday, March 19, 2011

Crooked Queensland cops escaping justice

A new "Fitzgerald" enquiry needed?

ONE definition of a pattern is "a consistent, characteristic form, style, or method" ... but anyone - police officer or civilian - looking for a discernible pattern in recent high-profile disciplinary cases in Queensland is entitled to feel disappointed and confused.

Consider two cases.

Five cops reportedly a sergeant and constables pose with a woman who flashes her breasts during the Valley Fiesta. Common element: Stupidity. Time for resolution: Six months. Penalty: Fines or pay cuts ranging from $5000 to $15,000 a year.

Six senior police, ranging from sergeant up to inspector, are accused of a cover-up at worst or procedural bumbling at best during investigations into an explosive death in custody on Palm Island. Common elements: Alleged unprofessionalism, lack of judgment and arrogance. Time for resolution: seven years. Penalty: None.

It is difficult not to wonder whether the worse the offence, the greater the potential for embarrassment and the more highly ranked the participants, the lighter the penalty in the police service.

This is the sort of hole in which the Queensland Police Service finds itself after its failure to take action against those officers whose performance helped ensure that the sorry death of Cameron (Mulrunji) Doomadgee turned into an endless saga of unresolved questions and broken trust.

That the investigation into Mulrunji's death (and the subsequent review) was so badly run and the case has taken so long to come to such a miserable conclusion is bad enough.

That the QPS is under suspicion because its own investigation into its own people revealed nothing actionable is predictable.

That there are growing doubts about the Crime and Misconduct Commission's ability to play a meaningful, constructive and timely oversight role is appalling.

That there is a breakdown between the CMC and the QPS is disturbing.

That five junior cops who demonstrated little more than naivety when confronted with an exhibitionist should be financially savaged while six experienced and relatively high-ranking officers facing infinitely more serious allegations should suffer nothing more than the indignity of "managerial guidance" is an affront to fair play.

The conflicting opinions of retiring Deputy Commissioner Kathy Rynders and CMC chairman Martin Moynihan available online will kill an hour or two but resolve little.

If it weren't so serious, it would be laughable. Moynihan and Rynders are still lobbing insults over the net. Moynihan remains astounded that no charges were laid; Rynders could find none to lay.

However, the police performance following Mulrunji's death was not what reasonable people would expect from experienced and streetwise officers. Events speak for themselves.

For some to claim that their behaviour (and perceptions of cosiness with those under investigation) was the harmless result of logistical realities is fairly rich given the same people saw bias in the fact that original coroner Michael Barnes had a beer with a lawyer.

Leaving aside Mulrunji and senior sergeant (now Acting Inspector) Chris Hurley, who was cleared of responsibility for his death, this case is indelibly marked by the serial failure of police and the CMC to bring any sort of closure or to deliver what most people would see as justice.

Half the world has probably given up on anything approaching justice in the Palm Island affair and the other half has joined Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson in wanting to "move on".

But it is difficult to move on when a dilatory investigation and a feeble response by the police service and a petulant CMC role leave us with the feeling the disciplinary procedure is slow to react, inconsistent and verging on the out of control.

That uneasy suspicion seems confirmed by inconsistency in several other cases: The nude runners from the Special Emergency Response Team, who copped Magistrate's Court and police service fines, suspensions and demotions; the lack of recorded action against police involved in a Queen St fracas that led to one officer receiving a court fine for assault; and the lack of public accountability for officers who remained silent while Senior Constable Benjamin Price was bashing people at Airlie Beach.

Police believe they are victimised and hamstrung by unrealistic expectations and petty oversight, while other citizens see their concerns ignored in an unedifying and legalistic spat between the police service and the CMC.

This is rapidly turning from an administrative dogfight into a pressing issue demanding a political response.


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