The home page of the Western Australian Crime and Corruption Commission describes the organisation as “a leading Australian anti-corruption body” whose task is to investigate “misconduct in the public sector”.
How then did the CCC fail to investigate two cases of gross misconduct on the part of the state’s police force? In the first, police assaulted a university professor who subsequently found his office had been broken into and evidence about his case removed; the second case involved a middle-aged woman who was on her way to assist some asylum seekers but who, after being stopped by traffic police, ended up being physically and verbally assaulted and placed in police cells and charged with criminal offences.
Last Thursday, the Western Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on the CCC tabled a report by the man charged with oversight of the CCC, former judge Christopher Steytler, QC, which outlined the two cases.
A woman aged 55 was on her way to the Perth office of the Immigration Department to try to prevent the deportation of two asylum seekers. She was stopped by traffic police and told her licence was suspended. The woman repeatedly told police she did not know her licence was suspended. They refused to believe her and she became flustered and refused to get out of the car after police told her that they would impound it. She was dragged from the car, placed under arrest and put in the back of a police van. To make matters worse, the woman rang for a friend to come and collect the vital papers. He arrived and police obstructed him from taking the papers. The woman was taken to a suburban police station where she was assaulted by police, subjected to derogatory remarks about her role in assisting asylum seekers, and then placed back in a van before being released.
The woman complained to the CCC, which did nothing about her complaint. Steytler took up the case and wrote the CCC chair Len Roberts-Smith, who dismissed the idea that the CCC should investigate the matter. In his view “the woman’s complaint, if true, amounted to the use of minor force and intimidation and her behaviour contributed to the way events unfolded”.
The second case involves a man, ironically a professor of Law at the University of Western Australia, who was, with his girlfriend, assisting a man who had fallen over in Fremantle late at night. Police arrived on the scene and the professor and his girlfriend were assaulted by police and tasered. They were taken to the local police station. The professor was charged and he obtained CCTV footage of the events.
His office at the university was subsequently broken into and his external hard drive, which contained the footage, was stolen. The professor was acquitted in the Magistrates Court after the magistrate who heard the case made adverse findings against the police involved. The professor complained to the CCC. The CCC undertook an examination of the matter but refused a full investigation.
Steytler was scathing of the CCC’s inaction in these cases. “Abuses of power by police officers, especially those involving the use of excessive force, undermine the integrity of, and respect for, the justice system. The system is further undermined when the body relevantly tasked with the external oversight of [police] fails, almost entirely, to conduct independent investigations into serious and credible allegations concerning the use of excessive force. There can be no public confidence in the justice system in the absence of a vigorous, independent investigation of complaints of this kind,” Steytler wrote.
One of the CCC’s reasons for failing to investigate these matters was cost. But is the real reason the CCC’s priorities? This was the organisation that spent millions of dollars going after former premier Brian Burke and politician Julian Grill over their lobbying activities. In 2010 Burke and Grill were acquitted of corruption charges laid after the CCC inquiry, although the DPP has appealed the case.