NSW police Commissioner Mick Fuller
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller (Image: AAP/Dan HImbrechts)

It was good that the NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller stepped up and offered an apology for an apparent act of excessive violence by one of his officers against an Indigenous teenager in Surry Hills on Monday.

However. Official regret that it happened is not the point. And the apology was qualified in ways that underline an institutional problem which the commissioner needs to urgently address.

Fuller’s thoughts, given in the safe zone of a Ben Fordham interview on 2GB, were revealing (these are edited highlights, but I think fair):

“You look at the video and it is concerning … certainly there are other ways the officer could have dealt with that … Not for one minute am I saying the officer’s actions were correct … we have to show restraint and the community expects that … Officers will make mistakes … f there are complaints sustained against [the officer], you would say he’s had a bad day and I’m sure most of the community wouldn’t want someone who’s made a mistake sacked.”

Compared to the comments made by NSW Police Minister David Elliott, Fuller was a model of carefully balanced reflection on a potentially incendiary incident. Elliott’s contribution was typical of his ignorant tone deafness, attempting to draw an equivalency between the officer’s act of violence and the teenager’s preceding verbal provocation.

To be clear, the teenager said he would punch the police officer, an intensely stupid thing to say, ever. From the video it was obviously an empty expression of idiot bravado, probably encouraged by the knowledge that he was being filmed. The police officers were not at risk, at least not so as to justify the brutality of the ensuing arrest.

It is the filming that reveals not just what happened, but a disconnect in the culture of policing which does not seem to be narrowing.

Elliott is just a rank provocateur (he famously said he’d be happy for the police to strip search his own children). Fuller may be just more politic, or perhaps he is thinking about the proper role of the force he leads in a civil society. Some of his other comments to Fordham indicated that he has been viewing the extreme police violence in the US with serious disquiet.

However, his language of minimisation betrays a continuing failure of understanding. 

His primary responsibility is for the organisational culture of the NSW Police Force and the 16,649 armed officers it comprises. Police work is ridiculously hard to do well, requiring a combination of personal risk, discretion, sensitivity and subtle nuance that is unmatched by any other job.

Because of that, we must allow officers leeway for error. However, it also means that the culture and values by which the organisation is guided, and which therefore provide the strongest influence on how each officer will behave (particularly under stress), take on extremely high significance.

The key to what happened on Monday in Surry Hills is not so much what that police officer did, but the fact that he clearly did not think he might face any adverse consequences for doing it. 

That is obvious from the fact that he knew he was being filmed at close range and he would have to know, as all police must surely by now realise, that the film would very likely go viral.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the police brutality in the US this week has been how obviously so many of the cops are just desperate to assault someone, and their carelessness of consequences. That speaks to a deeply embedded cultural problem.

I find this intriguing. 

The police are not so stupid as to not know that their actions these days are going to be recorded, scrutinised and judged in accordance not with the old standards of a wink and nod from the magistrate but the ordinary standards of humanity. 

Those standards say that is not OK to violently assault a person who is threatening no physical harm, whether they are peacefully protesting or giving lip on the street.

The High Court on Wednesday gave a small taste of what actual consequence can look like, in its ruling that the use of tear gas by prison guards on the (Aboriginal teenage) inmates of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin, in 2014, was illegal. Consequently, the inmates can sue for damages because, at law, they were victims of an assault.

The court’s decision was in part possible because the facts were objectively established. 

There was no doubt what had happened. More often from now on, that is going to be the case. The truth will be harder to hide, no doubt one reason why the US police have lately been targeting the media. But when everyone has a camera in hand, you have to go to China-level lengths to really suppress the truth.

I find it weird that the police don’t appear to be catching on to this fundamental change in their operating environment. The police commissioner gives the impression that he is genuinely surprised by the degree of criticism over Monday’s incident.

There is no context, genuine national security excluded, in which transparency is not a very good thing. Our police forces must learn, urgently, to adapt to the new reality that their decisions and acts will be exposed. It necessitates a reforming of their relationship with the community they serve.

“Domination”, that Trump word, will never work again, except in a true police state. Trust is the only basis on which an effective police culture can be built today. That is trust in both directions, of and by the policed.

It’s a huge ask. There’s no alternative. We should support the police when they try to change their culture accordingly, and not expect perfection.

In the meantime, the commissioner needs to understand that the consequences, or lack thereof, which the officer receives, will speak many volumes more loudly than his expressions of regret.

How can the police learn from criticism of the policing culture? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.