Monday, June 21, 2010

Qld. Police Commissioner in the gun

THERE is an odour pervading the city, drifting down from Parliament House at one end of town and police headquarters at the other, merging mid-point to create a colourless, poisonous cloud. It's been building in intensity for some time, the occasional whiff of questionable behaviour indicating that something was amiss.

There was that police investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct in a nightclub hotel toilet made against three Broncos players, an investigation that inexplicably took months to finalise before it was eventually decided they had no case to answer.

Then there was the Taser issue, these weapons being handed out by then police minister Judy Spence despite the fact that a 12-month trial into the appropriateness of their use had not even been completed. They were handed over by a compliant minister because the police wanted them. End of story.

At the time, the London Metropolitan Police Authority declined an offer from the British government for the widespread distribution of Tasers because it believed that such a move would cause fear and damage public confidence in the police. The Queensland Police Service under Commissioner Bob Atkinson had no such reservations.

On the first night Tasers were in general use, a Queensland police officer and two security guards held down and shot a 16-year-old girl with a Taser when she failed to obey a police order to move on. She was waiting for an ambulance to attend a sick friend at the time.

On the Gold Coast, there have been repeated allegations that some officers working out of the Surfers Paradise police station have become a law unto themselves, routinely accepting free drinks and lap dances and consorting with those involved with the nightclub drug trade and organised crime. Police Minister Neil Roberts ruled out any inquiry and Atkinson said everything was being done to make sure police officers were not on the take. It was the usual "few bad apples" defence.

Last week, a Gold Coast businessman who went to the Surfers Paradise police station to pay a fine for his son claimed he was assaulted, thrown into a cell and threatened with having his arms broken after he asked for an officer's name.

The clues are there for all to see; the growth of the belief that if you're in the Queensland Police Service you can do what you want. The Government contributes to this climate of unaccountability by caving in to the police service all too often.

Last week Roberts indicated he was in favour of a police move to speed up the process of impounding cars for alleged "hooning" offences. The present scheme, the Minister said, involved a magistrate and "lengthy police paperwork". We are talking here about permanently confiscating someone's car or impounding it for more than 48 hours. If "streamlining" the procedure gives police more power and lessens the involvement of a hopefully independent judiciary and the rights of the individual, it should be resisted.

On the Government's previous form, it won't be. In the same week, Premier Anna Bligh boasted of giving new powers to police to issue on-the-spot fines of $100 to $300 for public nuisance offences such as swearing. As usual, the Queensland Police Service asked for more power and the Government quickly agreed.

Bligh's defence of the move was that it would save police time appearing in court. It would, I suppose, save police even more time if the courts were abolished completely. Detention without trial, I believe it is called. Queensland Council for Civil Liberties president Michael Cope voiced a widely held concern when he said: "This will become the thing police just slap on someone whenever they aren't happy."

Crime and Misconduct Commission chairman Martin Moynihan's denunciation of Atkinson as presiding over a culture of denial in the police service is damning but has been a long time coming.

The signs of a police service increasingly out of control have been evident for a while. The CMC report should mark the end of Atkinson's career. Whatever happens, the Queensland Police Service is at a crossroads, one of which leads down a dark path we have travelled before.



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