By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
A damning report on the Victorian Police Force has described several instances of serious misconduct including assaults, harassment, stalking and predatory sexual misconduct.
Among other matters, the Police Registration and Services Board reported hearing 16 appeals by police officers against their dismissals during the 2016-17 year. The Board upheld the majority of those decisions, the subject matter of which represented some of the most serious examples of police misconduct in the state.
The cases were part of a minority of incidents whereby internal investigations were commenced, completed and resulted in dismissal.
Some of the incidents
In one case, a senior constable restrained a child and led him away before punching him without provocation.
Other cases involved officers using police databases to assist them in stalking members of the public. In another case, an officer was found to have pursued drunk and vulnerable women with a view to procuring them to engage in sexual conduct.
Two male officers were dismissed over inappropriate sexual relationships with women who had sought police help for domestic violence. One senior constable became sexually involved with several domestic violence victims, in what the independent board described as “serious predatory behaviour”.
A senior sergeant was also axed from the force for sexual misconduct, including exposing his penis to a female colleague. The same officer was accused of grabbing his crotch and making sexually explicit comments while talking to another woman.
Another senior sergeant who was under the influence of alcohol when he crashed his car and fled was also removed from the force.
Other harassment and falsifying timesheets.
Response from the force
While a Victoria Police spokesperson says such misconduct is rare and isolated, a steady stream of evidence suggests otherwise.
Last year, an investigation by the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission exposed the systemic use of excessive force and other forms of misconduct at Ballarat Police Station.
In one incident, officers at the station pushed a woman to the ground, dragged, pepper sprayed, kicked, stomped on her and stripped her naked in a series of degrading acts. Police fought hard to prevent footage of three incidents at the station from being released to the public, but the courts ultimately refused the injunctions sought.
Along with poor treatment of vulnerable members of the public, there is also widespread sexual harassment within the Victorian force.
Currently, 184 allegations of sexual misconduct are under investigation in Victoria, including reports of sexual assault, indecent assault and sexual harassment.
Police misconduct is a national problem
But the problem of police believing they are ‘above the law’ is not just isolated to Victoria – it is endemic Australia wide, with Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australian all making headlines recently for criminal conduct against members of the public and even those within their own ranks.
The Federal Police has also reported an alarming rate of bullying and harassment internally, with 62% of men and 66% of women reporting being bullied in the workplace within the past five years, and 46% of women and 20% of men reporting being sexually harassed over the same time period – more than double the national average.
Police policing police
A number have proposed the establishment of independent bodies that are not comprised of ‘ex-cops’ to investigate allegations of impropriety, including corruption, sexual misconduct and excessive force by police officers.
Recommendations have also been made to promote a culture of accountability, whereby ‘good cops’ are encouraged to report misconduct rather than the present situation where they are victimised and even prosecuted.
But with state and federal government all too eager to bow to the will of police forces around the country, and with police associations reluctant to acknowledge any problem, it may be some time before the culture of misconduct dissipates.