One landmark achievement of Justice James Wood’s 1990s royal commission into NSW police corruption was the establishment of the Police Integrity Commission (PIC). Now it’s facing the axe.

Andrew Tink, former Liberal MP and shadow attorney-general, has been cast in the role of undertaker. He is writing a report for the Coalition government on how to create a “streamlined police oversight system” that is “world class” and “transparent”.

When the PIC legislation was first debated in 1996, Tink, then-opposition police spokesman and MP for Eastwood on Sydney’s north shore, was one of its loudest supporters. The former barrister appears to have changed his mind.

“Tinky” will complete his report on August 31 and deliver it to Premier Mike Baird, who retains responsibility for PIC, not the Attorney-General.

According to Crikey sources, the government’s aim is to fulfil a pre-election commitment to the NSW Police Association to abolish the PIC and transfer all police oversight duties to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

Baird has the support of Deputy Premier and Nationals Leader Troy Grant, a former police inspector with 21 years’ service, so PIC’s abolition will be untroubled in cabinet.

Former premier Barry O’Farrell gave notice of PIC’s demise when he told Parliament in 2013: “The powers and functions of PIC and ICAC are substantially similar.”

This is a view shared by the NSW Police Association, a rabidly aggressive lobby group that has a history of shirt-fronting premiers, ministers and MPs of all political persuasions. The association’s pre-election submission to the Coalition called for the transfer of the functions of the PIC to ICAC. It also wants to strip the NSW Ombudsman of its police-oversight functions and hand them to ICAC as well.

One of the constant complaints of NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, senior commanders and the pro-police media is that NSW cops face meddling from seven oversight bodies. While the inter-jurisdictional tangle is real, the abolition of PIC and the removal of the Ombudsman’s police-oversight role is a step towards police self-protection on a grand scale.

If ICAC is called upon to handle police complaints and corruption scandals, it will require a major budget increase and more trained personnel. Will Treasury oblige? I think not.

The PIC’s current workload is formidable. In 2013-14, the commission assessed 1297 complaints of police misconduct, conducted 177 formal investigations and recommended criminal prosecution of 28 officers.

The police union’s real objection seems to be the PIC’s success in targeting corrupt cops and bringing them to justice, rather than its inefficiency. Before the establishment of the PIC as a statutory, independent body almost 20 years ago, corrupt and lawless police were investigated by other police and successful prosecutions were a rarity.

When royal commissioner Woods insisted on the establishment of PIC staffed by lawyers, accountants, IT analysts and independent police investigators, he hoped that it would become a permanent body preventing, detecting and investigating the most serious criminal misbehaviour of police.

He insisted that the new body should not be a part of the NSW police force and that it be furnished with royal commission powers.

“Old school” cops retaliated by feeding the media with stories claiming that officers were suffering intimidation, privacy violations and procedural unfairness. Some were true, but most were part of an organised campaign to discredit PIC and put an end to it.

Tink will examine the UK Independent Police Complaints Commission, the body set up by prime minister Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 2004.

It failed to tackle Scotland Yard’s involvement at the highest level with phone-hacking crimes carried out by Rupert Murdoch’s editors at The Sun and now-defunct News of the World.

Currently the PCC receives more than 3000 complaints against police a year, with more than 70% sent back to local constabularies for investigation, i.e. the dustbin.

If the NSW Police Association succeeds in despatching the PIC, it will turn its full attention to its other major demand: to arm police with shotguns and rifles.

Every time politicians acquiesce to the demands of the cops, the private security industry and the growing shooters lobby they make a rod for their own backs. It’s an incurable form of parliamentary sadomasochism.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey