Police Who Commit Crimes: Should they Face Greater Punishment?

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NSW police

Police officers hold a position of great power and responsibility, and they should set a good example for the rest of the community.

But when the very people who are meant to uphold the law and protect the community end up disgracing themselves, it’s very difficult for the public to have confidence in them, and lately there’s been a spate of police officers charged with various crimes.

Alleged criminal activity

In February this year, a Western Australian police officer allegedly installed a tracking device on the car of his mate’s girlfriend without her knowledge or consent. His mate was also a police officer.

The pair claimed that the device was installed in the course of their duty as police officers, and that they were investigating the girlfriend’s suspected illegal drug activity.

However, the Police Internal Affairs Unit said there was no evidence that the woman was involved in any illegal activity and there were no other investigations concerning her.

The officer entered a guilty plea and is awaiting sentencing.

A number of police officers have also been charged with assault in the past few months:

  • An officer was charged with assaulting a 16-year-old girl he was arresting.
  • An officer was charged with ‘assault occasioning actual bodily’ harm after assaulting and injuring his partner.
  • An officer was charged with ‘stalking and intimidation’ and ‘resisting or hindering a police officer’.
  • An officer and two other men were charged with ‘assault occasioning actual bodily harm’ and ‘affray’ after allegedly refusing to leave a licensed venue and then, having been removed, assaulting people while forcing their way back in.

There have also been officers charged with various driving offences so far this year, including an officer charged with drink driving in January, and a 40-year-old student officer charged with dangerous driving.

The Goulburn Post reported that the student officer was riding a motorcycle while allegedly tailgating a car, the passengers of which were other students. The student officer has been charged with negligent driving.

A Perth police officer is facing four counts of disclosing official secrets after allegedly leaking information about the arrest of former AFL star Ben Cousins to his girlfriend, a Channel 7 news reporter. The officer denied the charges when he appeared in court earlier this month.

Cousins had allegedly been involved in a slow speed car chase with police, and once arrested was taken to a nearby police station.

It is alleged that when he was released at 2am, the officer’s girlfriend was the only reporter waiting for him outside, the inference being that the officer had disclosed that information to her.

It is further alleged that the officer had no authority to disclose the information and the disclosure provided a clear advantage to the reporter, as she had notice of the story well before any other news services.

Increasing rate of incidents

It is reported that there has been a significant increase in the number of police officers being charged with crimes in recent times.

In January 2014, the Daily Telegraph reported that one in every 40 NSW police officers had been convicted of committing a criminal offence, an increase of 230 per cent in five years.

The wider impact of police committing crimes

Regardless of the seriousness of the offence, police officers breaking the law presents a significant social issue. If the very people who are meant to uphold the law are committing crimes, it doesn’t instil much confidence in the integrity of our policing system.

A general lack of trust in the police is one side-effect. Consider the case of the tracking device installed in the woman’s car without her consent. If the police think that they can get away with this kind of brazen behaviour, then what else are they up to? Which begs the question, do we need protection from the protectors?

More specifically, should a body other than the police force itself be responsible for all investigations into the conduct of police officers, including incidents whereby police shoot and kill civilians? Perhaps this would be better than the current practice of police investigating themselves and preparing reports about the conduct of those within their own ranks for bodies like the coroner.

The issue of abuse of power and trust is apparent in the Ben Cousins arrest case – whereby the officer is charged with accessing information that was only available to him by virtue of his position.

And police being charged with assault is a serious issue, especially given the discourse taking place about domestic violence and street assaults at the moment.

The (thin blue) bottom line

A police officer breaking the law is always a serious concern.

While there should be some leeway for officers just ‘being human’, this needs to be balanced against the impact that this activity has on society – including how it affects our trust in the police force generally.

Conduct that the officers may view as minor or private often has far more serious consequences for the integrity of the force as a whole – and this may be a reason for officers to be held to a higher standard and punished accordingly for their crimes.

Just as breaching a position of trust can make a fraud offence more serious, perhaps police officers who breach the trust placed in them by committing crimes should be treated more severely than others, especially considering the effect that their conduct can have on the public’s view of the police force generally.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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