Headline news yesterday when Victoria’s Office of Police Integrity inquiry into the armed offenders squad was shown was shown footage of three police officers assaulting and abusing a suspect. But no-one seems to be very surprised by it.
It’s more than 20 years since I sat on a jury in an armed robbery case, where the defendant had signed a confession but claimed at trial that the police had beaten it out of him. We weren’t convinced, but we weren’t very impressed with the police evidence either, and there was enough doubt to acquit him.
I was young and innocent at the time, but on relating the experience to others I was told that the armed robbery squad (as it then was) had a reputation for that sort of thing. And so it had; in the 1970s, the Beach inquiry into Victorian police corruption uncovered numerous cases of improperly obtained or fabricated confessions.
Not much looks to have changed; last week, in disbanding the squad, chief commissioner Christine Nixon said with some understatement that “it had exhibited an unhealthy culture.” But the head of the state’s police union, Paul Mullett – himself a former member of the armed robbery squad – said that “the officers are not being treated fairly” by having their conduct exposed in a public inquiry.
The real problem is that, despite some improvements, the community too often turns a blind eye to police malpractice. Juries are notoriously unwilling to convict police officers: 33 were charged as a result of the Beach inquiry, but not a single conviction was obtained.
Premier Steve Bracks defended the OPI inquiry yesterday, but it has been suggested in the past that his government’s reluctance to appoint a fully independent commission to investigate police was due to fear of the Police Association. Nor is there much hope from a change of government, since the Opposition spent much of last year trying to recruit Mullett as a Liberal candidate.