A Victorian police officer who was allowed to remain on the force after publishing private images of, and making highly offensive remarks about, former AFL coach Dani Laidley is facing yet another disciplinary hearing, this time over allegations he possessed photos of dead people without authorisation.
Detective Leading Senior Constable Murray Gentner pleaded guilty and was placed on a 12-month good behaviour bond after the incident involving Dani Laidley, and still remains on the force despite the most recent allegations.
In 2020, images of Former AFL Coach Dani Laidley – who underwent gender change therapy in 2020 – were shared by police officers in a closed WhatsApp group, with some, including Detective Leading Senior Constable Murray Gentner, making highly offensive comments about them.
The images and the commentary found their way onto other platforms and the mainstream media.
Ms Laidley took the matter to court, seeking “aggravated and exemplary damages” for being “brought into public ridicule and contempt”.
Behind closed doors, the Victoria Police Force conducted an internal investigation.
As a result, dozens of officers faced internal disciplinary action – with at least six being ordered to pay up to $3000 compensation to Ms Laidley, from their own pockets.
Gentner and two other Senior constables were charged with disclosing police information without reasonable excuse. Getner Gentner also faced charges of misconduct in public office.
However, all the charges were dropped after it was found in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court that the prosecution had failed to establish that the officers had a duty to not disclose the information about Laidley.
The civil case was settled out of court, for an undisclosed sum.
Detective Leading Senior Constable Murray Gentner was ordered to undertake a “respecting dignity” course over the Laidley matter, but is now facing further allegations of “disgraceful and improper conduct” by investigators from Professional Standards Command.
New allegations of possessing photos of corpses
The investigators allege that he received images of dead people from his colleagues, who were not authorised to send these images, and kept possession of them without authorisation.
Three other officers have also been accused of the same breach of standards – but none of the four has been charged with any criminal offence. This is despite the fact possessing such restricted data without authorisation is a crime in Victoria and may also amount to the offence of misconduct in public office in that state.
This time, Detective Leading Senior Constable Murray Gentner has been placed on leave without pay, at least until the disciplinary hearing is finalised.
Chief Commissioner of the Victorian Police Force Shane Patton recently warned all Victorian police officers that there will be ‘zero tolerance’ for any breaches of VicPol’s disciplinary code.
According to figures, 17 officers have been dismissed for misconduct and a further 31 resigned while under investigation in the past year.
Loss of confidence in police
The incident is just one of hundreds in recent years that have led to a loss of confidence and growing distrust of policing organisations across the nation, with complaints against police often growing year-on-year.
The Victoria police watchdog, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) released statistics recently that show complaints against the Victorian Police Force had increased by 14 per cent in just 12 months.
IBAC received more than 1900 complaints about Victoria Police, representing almost 70 per cent of the total complaints it was asked to investigate.
One recent probe conducted by IBAC was an inquiry into Victoria Police’s handling of a complaint that an officer used excessive and unlawful force. IBAC found that the force’s internal investigation was inadequate, and that it had covered up and given false reports on the behaviour of the police officer.
Time and again, such stories only serve to provide further evidence to the fact that the current system of police investigating themselves is not working – a fact that the Victorian Government continues to ignore.
New South Wales is not much better.
The need for stronger oversight
IBAC, like its NSW equivalent, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, (ICAC) simply does not have the resources to handle every single complaint made about police. The current process in both jurisdictions is that Professional Standards Command – the internal investigative team – handle most complaints, and the oversight bodies, IBAC and ICAC only become involved in matters considered the ‘most serious’.
But given what we know about the toxic culture within Australia’s police forces, it’s difficult to understand how much actual independence the Professional Standards Command can truly retain when it is tasked with scrutinising the behaviour and activities of colleagues.
Further, while both IBAC and ICAC have the power to recommend the Department of Prosecution consider criminal charges, if they believe there is adequate evidence for prosecution, neither has the power to actually enforce any kind of disciplinary action against police officers, or through the courts. This lack of ‘teeth’ has long been criticised as the greatest shortcoming of both watchdog bodies.
Certainly the reputations of both Victoria and New South Wales police have fallen since the beginning of Covid, when both continually used heavy-handed tactics, in some cases, excessive force to enforce public health rules and community trust is fragile.
In Victoria, the situation is exacerbated by the hangover that remains from the Lawyer X scandal. The actions of Victoria Police in using well-known gangland lawyer Nicola Gobbo as a police informant between 1995 and 2009 which has caused some convictions to be overturned. The fallout and the rubble is still being sifted through, but ultimately, the circumstances have seriously compromised the integrity of the justice system, and the public’s confidence in it.
While Police Chief Patton is making all the right noises about eradicating police misconduct, whether there will be real change remains to be seen. We’ve heard these platitudes time and again, yet issues continue to plague our police forces – not just Victoria, but New South Wales and Queensland too.
It’s time that governments invested in mechanisms for transparency and accountability and stronger oversight, rather than continuing to invest in weaponry and increasing police powers which only seem to feed the ‘us and them’ divide without actually making our communities safer.