Urgent need to reform Victoria’s police complaints system

In February 2016 the Victorian parliament will debate reforms to the Independent Broad -based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) to fight corruption.

We welcome changes that will strengthen the ability of IBAC to investigate corrupt public servants, politicians and judiciary and strengthen Victoria’s integrity system with increased powers and scope for the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman.

Introducing the bill in December 2015 Minister Jacinta Allan told parliament:

“The government will continue its review of Victoria’s integrity and accountability system during 2016 and 2017 to identify further opportunities to improve its effectiveness. It is crucial that all Victorians can have confidence that public officials and bodies conduct themselves, and use public funds, with the highest degree of integrity and accountability.”

A major omission so far is any attention to the powers and role of IBAC to investigate serious police misconduct.

Currently IBAC has the resources and power to investigate a very small number of complaints against police. Overwhelmingly complaints including serious mistreatment are investigated internally by Victoria Police.

Many senior police have indicated support for IBAC taking on the role of investigating serious complaints against police. The Police Association seems opposed as is evidenced by their opposition to the Ballarat inquiry. Why is that? Surely they don’t want police who abuse and mistreat the public bringing disrepute to all police.

The current IBAC investigation into Ballarat officers accused of excessive force has demonstrated the determination and capability of IBAC to bring police abuse to light. It has also shown the extent and power of opposition to this with a High Court appeal pending. If IBAC can investigate actions of public servants why not the actions of police officers?

Police are granted great powers by the state and it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that these powers are not abused. The use of coercive and invasive powers is a routine part of a police member’s job.  Police are provided with weapons including guns, Tasers, OC (pepper) spray and batons.  Police arrest, detain, stop, question and search people, their cars and homes, all of which impacts on fundamental human rights and freedoms.

The current police complaints system lacks integrity, transparency and independence. An analysis of police complaint substantiation rates from 2000 to 2013 indicates less than 10% of all complaints to police were substantiated. Less than 4% of all assault complaints are substantiated. When courts are given the chance to assess these allegations they consistently find they have substance.

Of great concern to legal centres and others who hear of complaints is that few complainants wish to proceed with a complaint once they understand that it will be investigated internally.

We need to restore public confidence to make complaints. Police who abuse the trust of Victorians must be held accountable.

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