The Offence of Police Neglect of Duty in New South Wales

by Sonia Hickey & Ugur Nedim
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Neglect of Duty is an offence under section 201 of the Police Act 1990 (NSW) which carries a maximum penalty of 20 penalty units, or $2,200.

A police officer is guilty of this offence if he or she “neglects or refuses to obey any lawful order or carry out any lawful duty as a police officer”.

Convicted and fined

A New South Wales police woman has been convicted and fined $600 after pleading guilty to this offence for failing to properly record or investigate a domestic violence complaint about a man who went on to kill another man and then himself.

The Officer, 30-year old Senior Constable Jodi Harmer, is also facing a disciplinary hearing and could be suspended or lose her job

The sentencing hearing

During the sentencing hearing in Newcastle Local Court on Wednesday 10 November 2021, Magistrate Robert Stone pointed out that Senior Constable Harmer had a legal obligation to do much more than she did on the night a woman walked into the police station and reported concerns about her former boyfriend.

However, the Magistrate stopped short of directly blaming the officer for what happened five days later.

He recorded a criminal conviction against the officer’s name and imposed a $600 fine on her

Evidence given in court

The police papers handed up in court detailed that the victim attended Belmont Police Station to make a formal complaint about her boyfriend, Local Court Sherriff Warren Browne.

Senior Constable Harmer spoke to the woman across the counter, but did not take her to an interview room.

As their conversation continued, the woman asked the officer to phone Mr Browne and direct him to stop contacting and harassing her.

She told the police woman she had received 33 missed calls from the man just that afternoon.

Senior Constable Harmer took notes and eventually agreed to call Mr Browne in front of the woman. At the end of the call, the officer told her that Mr Browne agreed to leave her alone.

But even though the officer took notes, she did not record them on the police computer system as she was required to do.

She claimed there was a power outage at the station and decided for that reason to enter the notes when she returned to work several days later, after her rostered days off.

But by that time, Mr Browne had already gone to the complainant’s home, shot and killed a man who was there at the time, before shooting himself dead.

According to the prosecution papers, the power outage actually occurred at 1.30am – well after Officer Harmer had left the station at midnight. The woman’s report had, of course, been made well before the outage.

The court also heard the officer failed to assess the risk of any future harm and did not refer the woman to a specialist support service or give her the opportunity to record a domestic violence evidence statement.

She also failed to conduct a firearms check, make an application for a provisional apprehended domestic violence order or identify/investigate any potential criminal offences.

The officer had mental health issues

The case raises issues regarding the way domestic violence incidents are handled by police, and the systemic failings in the system which lead to harm and death every year.

But what makes this particular case even more tragic is evidence presented to the court which detailed that Officer Harmer had been seeing a psychiatrist since starting work at Belmont police station in 2013, and was taking antidepressants after claiming to have been sexually harassed by a police sergeant.

The officer had been moved two months after the alleged sexual assault, before being moved again.

The Office of Director of Public Prosecutions told the court that Officer Harmer’s sexual harassment claim had been dealt with after it was raised in 2013, and was “finished”.

But it certainly wasn’t ‘finished’ for Senior Constable Harmer.

Toxic police culture

In recent times, more and more stories are emerging about police officers who have been the victims of sexual harassment, bullying, homophobia, ‘cover ups, ostracism … and the list goes on.

Statistics show that the number of police officers leaving the force for medical reasons has doubled since 2015.

A recent investigation by the LECC into workplace equity matters, including bullying, discrimination, harassment, and vilification in the NSW police force 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.

In yet 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”.

Similarly, the ‘Broderick Review’ of the NSW Police force, the results of which were presented in 2019,  highlighted a highly “masculine culture” and alarming levels of sexual harassment and bullying, and yet, change appears to be very slow in coming.

We also recently reported on the case of a police solicitor who has taken the NSW Police Force to the Workers Compensation Commission over claims she was demoted after reporting alleged sexual assault by a colleague. Her case is continuing.

Failing employees and the public

It’s clear from these examples that the NSW Police Force is failing its employees, and in doing so, it is failing the wider community.

There are plenty of research studies which show that employees who are adequately trained and who feel safe and supported in their workplaces are more engaged, and more motivated.

Stories like these should set off alarm bells for the NSW Government, and yet, it continues to award Police Chief Mick Fuller successive pay rises. At this point in time he earns more than the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, while the NSW Police Force gains a growing reputation for dysfunction.

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Authors

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, Autumn 2021.

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with over 20 years of experience as a criminal defence lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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