The NSW Police Force Handbook is meant to be the gospel when it comes to policing in our state.
It is a comprehensive, 518 page document which provides information, advice and guidance on practically every aspect of policing.
The publicly available handbook establishes best practices which all police are meant to follow when executing their duties, and even when ‘off duty’.
It deals with a broad range of topics from how to deal with crime scenes, alleged victims and members of the public, through to the complaints process, to the weird and wonderful including the methods that may be employed to “destroy an Australian magpie to protect people from being attacked” (shotguns are recommended; magpies beware!).
When a criminal charge is to be laid
On a more serious note, the part of the handbook titles ‘Responsibility for Court Proceedings’ sets out the rules relating to the filing of criminal charges. It provides that:
“Whilst an informant/prosecutor is not required to believe that the accused is guilty of the offence charged, you must however, honestly and reasonably believe that, upon the available evidence there is a proper case to lay before the court. All allegations must be subject to a full and proper investigation so that you are in the best position to consider all the available and admissible evidence before proceeding to charge” (emphasis added).
The handbook therefore envisages a police force which conducts a full investigation and assesses the reliability and credibility of evidence before pressing charges.
But unfortunately in practice, police will often file charges with little or no supporting evidence, and without having conducted an investigation into the veracity of a complaint. By employing this ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ approach, NSW police are acting contrary to the directions contained in their own handbook.
Indeed, police seem to be increasingly taking the view that any complaint should result in criminal charges, regardless of apparent inconsistencies and other flaws in the complaint, and the existence of lines of enquiry which may or even do undermine the allegations. By doing this, police are often commencing prosecutions which are later withdrawn or thrown out of court for lack of evidence (often after many months, or longer).
Examples of failing to follow the rules
Here are just a few situations where police will often lay criminal charges without conducting “a full and proper investigation”:
Police arrive at a fight in the street and take a statement from the person who looks the most injured.
They neglect to canvass the area for potential witnesses who might be able to elaborate on how the fight was started and what had occurred. They fail to detect the presence of CCTV cameras, or fail to ensure the footage is obtained and viewed before a determination in relation to charges is made.
They go ahead and charge the person who is the least injured that very day.
In this common example, a proper investigation is replaced by the simplistic mantra: the most injured person is the victim.
Claims of domestic violence
Police arrive at a home where the partners have been in an altercation.
Neither partner has visible injuries. Police interview the female and accept her word as gospel, without even interviewing the male.
Police fail to interview neighbours, even if they were the ones who called 000.
Police go ahead and charge the male will common assault and apply for an apprehended violence order against him based solely upon the female’s complaint.
Claims of sexual assault
Police receive a complaint from a person who claims to have been sexual assaulted years beforehand. A statement is taken, which contains a number of inconsistencies and raises a range of questions.
Police fail to take steps to check the veracity of the complaint – whether by interviewing those who may have been privy to interactions between the complainant and the accused, examining the scene of the alleged incident, or otherwise.
Police take the complainant’s statement as gospel, charge the accused person with a serious sexual assault offence and that person’s life upside down in the process. The defendant may even be refused bail and languish behind bars for months or more.
Most recently, I worked on a case where police had refused to take statements from the brother and sister of the accused, despite the fact they were present in the home when the alleged sexual assault took place.
When we ultimately interview the siblings, it became apparent that the complainant was lying about the alleged incident.
The charges were ultimately dropped, but not before an innocent man’s life was placed in turmoil and his reputation affected for life.