Systemic Bullying, Brutality and Cover-Ups: Officers Speak Out Against Toxic Police Culture

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Police officers say that a dysfunctional and divisive culture within the New South Wales police force is stronger than ever, with a number of officers recently speaking out about toxic leadership, bullying, ‘cliques’, systemic brutality and cover-ups.

Speaking to media, more than a dozen police officers from various regions across the state each tell a similar story – that police complaints are being ‘weaponised’ and used to push out good officers and protect bad ones.

Concerningly, these accounts echo the findings of a number of reports released by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) in the past few years.

The LECC is the independent body which oversees the NSW Police Force.

Bullying, discrimination, harassment, and vilification

In a recent report into workplace equity matters, including bullying, discrimination, harassment, and vilification between 2017 and 2018 found 33 per cent of 120 investigations related to bullying and 27 per cent related to sexual harassment.

It found more female officers are targeted than males while some officers feared reprisal if they lodged a complaint about a colleague.

It also found that in 21 percent of investigations, complainants suffered medical and psychological harm and many expressed a fear of reprisal if it had become known they made a complaint.

The LECC proposed six recommendations for change and has given the force a 12 month deadline to implement these.

In another recent report, the LECC detailed findings of an “entrenched culture of misbehaviour, including sexual harassment, led by senior officers and emulated by junior staff” at one police command.

In another, a “clique” driven by the team leaders was “fostering a climate of bullying and harassment towards staff that were not in the clique”.

A massive part of the problem, say police officers, comes down to the fact that complaints – whether they are internal (one officer complaining about another’s conduct) or from the general public are initially handled within the Local Area Command, a practice that has long been condemned because it essentially means police officers are left to investigate themselves.

Officers confirm that this means that groups can collude and “stitch-up” their colleagues.

Thousands of complaints against NSW police officers

Another problem is the sheer volume of complaints.

There were more than 25,000 complaints against police by other police, anonymous sources and the public in the five years to 2020.

Data obtained under freedom of information laws shows more than half of all complaints about police from 2015 to 2020 were not investigated, about one in five were not sustained when investigated, and about 22 per cent were sustained.

NSW Police said there are many reasons not to investigate a complaint, including allegations being too old or vague or not relating to a police officer’s conduct, but the LECC has told NSW Police it did not agree with its decision to decline to investigate 117 misconduct matters last year.

In about 13 per cent of those cases, at least one sustained finding was made but half of the cases resulted in no sustained findings.

What’s disturbing is that the same issues appear time and again.

Culture change is slow

In 2019, when former Australian sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, was tasked with examining the impact the police force’s internal culture is having on women trying to move up through the ranks, reported key findings that included two-thirds of female officers felt cliques, in-crowds and the “boys club” formed a barrier to promotion and advancement in their careers, and one in three reported being sexually harassed at work, NSW Police Force Chief Mick Fuller vowed to change the culture.

But changes appear to be drastically slow in coming. Despite spending a massive $500 million on a recruitment drive, to attract an additional 1500 officers to the force in the coming four years, attrition rates remain alarmingly high. Police officers are leaving the force in droves, and the numbers leaving for medical reasons has doubled since 2015.

Let’s not forget that Mr Fuller was awarded a significant pay rise this year, and part of his role is to ensure a higher standard so that NSW Police Officers have a safe, supportive work environment, with zero tolerance for maltreatment or misconduct of any kind.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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