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on police unions, justice and civil liberties

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taser use in the US seems to have gotten just a bit out of control

If I may be subjective for just a moment ho ho, every time I see a police union leader fronting the cameras for whatever reason [but inevitably it’s about supporting and protecting police officers whatever they do or have done] I feel repelled by his [and I’ve never seen a female one yet] near-thuggish arrogance and air of complacent certitude. These aren’t the sort of people I would find any great pleasure in consorting with. When watching the fine ABC documentary ‘The Tall Man’ a little while back, a documentary that, amongst other things, looked at the evidence surrounding the death in custody of Palm Islander Cameron Doomadgee and the role possibly played by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley [the ‘Tall Man’ of the story] , I was struck, as many people would have been, by the attitude of the Queensland Police Union, as represented by their president Ian Leavers. In one of the lowlights of the program, Leavers criticised the results of one of the many coronial inquests into Doomadgee’s death in extraordinarily intemperate terms. That finding [against the police] has since been supported by other inquests, as you would expect, considering that Doomadgee, a man in the prime of life and in good health when arrested, died of horrific injuries in the police watch-house 45 minutes later. Yet throughout the years of inquests and examinations, the Queensland Police Force, no doubt under union direction, were completely in lock step behind one of their own, and in complete denial of the painfully obvious facts of the case. It’s one of the more demoralising examples of in-group-think I’ve encountered, and it’s a huge problem for police forces everywhere, and for similar inward-looking institutions [the military comes to mind].

The decision of the Victorian Police Force to bring in tasers for their officers [they’re already in use in NSW, Queensland and WA], but tasers of a new, untested type which can fire a second electric shock without reloading, has reminded me of this fearsome in-group arrogance and how easily it can get out of hand. Here in South Australia there is no independent organisation with oversight of the police, something I discovered to my cost several years ago when I landed in some police ‘trouble’. The SA Police Complaints Authority, established in 1985, and completely controlled by the police, is a joke. Victoria established their Office of Police Integrity in 2004 after years of pressure to act against Victorian police corruption [they also had a Police Complaints Authority, established in 1986, but it was shut down through union and management pressure].  However, in 2007, retired Supreme Court judge Don Stewart made allegations about large scale corruption in the Victorian police, well beyond what OPI could deal with. He called for a Royal Commission, but the government didn’t act. At least it can be said that OPI’s public hearings on police matters have generated much interest, bringing about, or at least being partially responsible for bringing about, the resignations of Assistant Commissioner Noel Ashby and Police Media Director Steve Linnell, and the suspension of union heavy Paul Mullett.

One of the most active analysts of this matter of police accountability in Australia over the last couple of decades has been Colleen Lewis, a professor of criminology at Monash University. In this 2005 article, she recognises the fine balance between police independence from governmental and political pressure, and accountability. There’s a clear sense in which the police is an arm of government, as the body that enforces governmental law. This has caused many tensions over the years, as well as jurisdictional confusion, between police commissioners and police ministers, with governments sometimes ‘courting’ the police and the police applying pressure on governments in terms of funding and increased policing powers. Within this often fraught context, growing concerns, since the seventies and eighties, about police accountability and the need for independent oversight, have not made relations between the legislature and enforcement branch any easier.  The article linked to above provides a useful table of the various commissions and authorities set up to oversee and to deal with complaints about police activity in the various states. As can be seen, only South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Federal Police have had stability of organisational oversight in the past three decades or so. The states in which policing has raised most questions, most notably Victoria and Queensland, have had the most difficulties in establishing stable independent oversight. Matters have been complicated, as Lewis points out, by a rise in ‘private policing’ in the last couple of decades, with security companies taking greater responsibility in private or semi-private venues such as sports stadiums, entertainment arenas, shopping complexes and the like.

All of this reflection and exploration of policing in Australia is a response to my gut reaction to remarks heard from time to time, remarks from police commissioners and police union reps, generally calling for greater police powers or greater police budgets, and reassuring the public of their benign intent while criticising civil liberties spokespeople or warning against various looming threats. When this sort of talk becomes prevalent within the context of governments bingeing on law and order issues, I start to feel personally threatened and hemmed in [solid citizen though I am]. We need to feel the freedom to be critical and sceptical, and to stand up against too much of this sort of thing, and against the occasional real abuse of power, with the knowledge that there is organisational support, with some real teeth, that we can access.

On tasers specifically, note this interesting British article.

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Written by stewart henderson

March 16, 2012 at 8:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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