Saturday, 9 August 2008

Police-crime links linger

A SMALL number of Victorian police are maintaining improper links with organised crime figures, the state's police corruption watchdog says.

In an interview marking 100 days as the director of the Office of Police Integrity, former county court judge Michael Strong revealed that associations between police and high-level criminals were among of a number of corruption issues the OPI was probing.

"The police officer may have known the criminal for many years. The friendship might have begun quite innocently, perhaps they were at school together, perhaps they have mutual friends, perhaps the police officer enjoys the lifestyle the criminal lives, the high living and so on," Mr Strong said.

"I believe there are some associations between a very small number of Victorian police and persons who could be described as organised criminals."

Mr Strong also said:

* The watchdog was still investigating allegations made about a small number of police who had worked at the St Kilda police station.

* Force command was set to release its revised improper-association policy, requiring police to disclose any potentially improper relationships.

* The vast majority of police were honest and hard-working and that part of the OPI's role was to prevent corruption rather than simply detect it.

Mr Strong, who replaced George Brouwer as OPI director in March, recently oversaw the preparation of criminal briefs against police union secretary Paul Mullett, former assistant commissioner Noel Ashby and former police media director Stephen Linnell. The trio were charged by police last month following the controversial OPI public hearings in November, which exposed tapped phone calls of the men allegedly discussing confidential police information.

Mr Strong dismissed claims made previously by Mr Mullett and Mr Ashby that the OPI's investigations were driven by vendettas held by some in force command or were aimed at undermining the police union.

"My background is as a judge of 20 years' standing and I assume in appointing me the Government was keen to appoint someone in a long background in independent action," he said.

Mr Strong refused to comment on whether Victoria needed a broad-based anti-corruption commission, with similar powers to the OPI's, that could investigate politicians, public officials and organised criminals.

The OPI can tap phones and force suspects to answer questions, but it can investigate only serving and former police.

Mr Strong also defended the levels of oversight applied to the OPI and said he was stunned by claims that it was unaccountable.

However, the man in charge of overseeing the Office of Police Integrity, David Jones, also a former judge, has previously recommended to the State Government that his OPI oversight powers be widened.

Mr Jones' scrutiny of the OPI is limited to its use of phone tap powers and coercive powers. Mr Jones has also raised the potential for a "perception of a lack of independence" in respect of the OPI oversight role held by the state ombudsman and former OPI chief, Mr Brouwer.

Mr Strong was appointed a County Court judge in 1988 after a stint as a Crown prosecutor and vice-president of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. In the early 1990s, he presided over one of the state's longest-running police corruption trials, involving members of the consorting squad.

Mr Strong said his long involvement with the Berry Street children's welfare organisation had helped shape his view that the proper guidance of young police was critical in preventing corruption later on in their careers.

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