'They will harass me if I complain': Legal service questions lack of independent oversight in small-town police

Police officers in a small town in the Loddon-Campaspe region were investigated by IBAC after a complaint in 2013. But the matter was investigated by the police station itself, with conflict of interest concerns raised.
Police officers in a small town in the Loddon-Campaspe region were investigated by IBAC after a complaint in 2013. But the matter was investigated by the police station itself, with conflict of interest concerns raised.

IN a small town in the Loddon-Campaspe region, a woman was taken into police custody for being drunk in a public place.

Except she was not drunk – she was having side effects from medication for her mental illness.

But she was charged with being drunk in public regardless, sustained bruising from allegedly being “roughly treated” by police, and claimed she was confronted with “sexist and racist remarks”.

During her interview with police, she said officers made reference to her father who had earlier made an official complaint about local police.

She claims she was not given water, was left in the cell in a wet dress, and that officers did not provide their names.

Later, police offered to withdraw the drunk in public charge on one condition – that the woman not make a complaint about their conduct. The offer was made to the Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre, which was representing the woman.

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission became involved in November 2013, but the complaint was referred back to the local police station for investigation.

It was investigated by the same officer who was the subject of a complaint from the woman’s father.

Almost two years later, IBAC closed the complaint with no further action.

The woman was never contacted in the course of the investigation.

The LCCLC also supported the woman during the complaint process with IBAC. They believe instances like this show a potential conflict of interest, and a lack of independence, in the complaint-handling process with Victoria Police.

The story was included in the LCCLC submission to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into external oversight of police corruption and misconduct, held by the IBAC committee.

In the submission, Clare Sauro – the LCCLC legal practice manager – said there were issues with police accountability in small towns.

Clare Sauro says greater independence is needed in handling complaints against police - particularly when it involves small towns.

Clare Sauro says greater independence is needed in handling complaints against police - particularly when it involves small towns.

“The casework experience of the LCCLC indicates that the idea of simple participation in police accountability processes is hampered by the reality of small-town life in rural locations,” she said.

“Anonymity is also at risk in small communities – LCCLC has found clients are reluctant to complain because they feel they will be the objects of targeted treatment by local police.

“Client instructions often are ‘they know where I live, they will harass me if I complain’.”

In the case of the woman, the LCCLC questioned the conflict of having the same officer who was the subject of an earlier complaint from the women’s father investigate his own officers’ conduct.

The LCCLC argued there was a “failure to follow basic arrest protocols”, evidence was not considered, there were allegations of maltreatment at the station and an overly long period of time was taken to resolve the complaint.

IBAC found that elements of the complaint were “unable to be determined” or were “not substantiated” because of a lack of material evidence.

Ms Sauro said the lack of evidence was often a barrier to complaints being upheld.

“We regularly receive complaints about police conduct, but it’s much less common that the complaints are actually made to police,” she said.

“There are great difficulties in police complaints in that it is often the word of our client verses police.

“We need to make sure that when people make a complaint, they are respected and that these complaints are taken seriously and independently investigated.”

The state government is being forced to consider introducing greater independence to the police complaint-handling process as part of the inquiry.

In a joint submission, signed by the LCCLC, a number of community legal groups put forward their concerns about complaints being investigated by police themselves.

“Victoria has a system in which the majority of complaints against police (whether they are made internally by police, or by members of the public) are investigated by police,” the joint submission states.

“This system of independent partial oversight and extremely limited independent investigation, needs to change.”

IBAC is hoping to improve oversight and investigation of police corruption and misconduct as part of an inquiry.

IBAC is hoping to improve oversight and investigation of police corruption and misconduct as part of an inquiry.

A spokesperson for Victoria Police said the complaints process was the same for country police officers as it was for their metropolitan counterparts.

“Officers assigned to conduct internal investigations must be independent of the subject officer,” the spokesperson said.

“They must declare a conflict of interest in writing and any conflict must be managed in consultation with their line manager.  

“Often, this means the investigator is assigned from outside the subject officer’s division.”

The parliamentary inquiry was launched in June, and will investigate ways for IBAC to improve oversight of police corruption and complaints handling.

A series of public hearings will be conducted before a final report with recommendations is released mid-next year.

Ms Sauro said improving the complaints-handling process would increase public confidence in police – which could only be a positive for the community.

“It’s important to acknowledge that police do an important job, it is a difficult job, they deal with people who are often having the worst days of their lives,” she said.

“We have to make sure that any room for improvement is considered and implemented.”