Friday, 31 October 2008

Sacked Victorian police squad lawless

The black suits, white shirts and team-issue black ties worn by the armed offenders squad imitated the violent criminals in the film Reservoir Dogs, the OPI report says.

THE police corruption watchdog claims some members of the former armed offenders squad took the law into their own hands.

Office of Police Integrity director Michael Strong said too many squad members believed assaulting criminals was a community service.

In a report tabled yesterday in State Parliament, Mr Strong also said some squad members believed they were a "force within the force" and above the law.

"Undoubtedly some police have been prepared to decide guilt without recourse to courts, mete out punishment to those they consider deserve it and lie on oath or turn a blind eye to protect themselves or their colleagues," he said.

Mr Strong said members of the scrapped squad had a disproportionate number of complaints compared with other Victoria Police squads.

"The armed offenders squad should be regarded as a cultural relic within Victoria Police," he said.

"Too many of its members believed that 'the end justified the means', and that bashing a 'crook', was a community service.

"The squad, through a lack of appropriate monitoring and accountability within Victoria Police, was allowed to develop its own culture, out of step with the organisation's direction."

The OPI secretly bugged an armed offenders squad interview room in 2006 and filmed members committing assaults.

Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon scrapped the elite squad within weeks of a July 2007 OPI raid on it.

Disgraced ex-squad members Robert Dabb, Mark Butterfield and Matthew Franc initially denied it was them who were caught on camera bashing a suspect.

But each of the former detectives this year pleaded guilty to assault and misleading the OPI director.

They were sentenced to intensive corrections orders involving community work, education and training of between 17 and 22 weeks.

Mr Strong said he was concerned the violence revealed on the secret tape was not an isolated or unusual occurrence, but was symptomatic of broader problems in the squad's structure and ethos.

"Lack of a stable and strong middle management clearly contributed to the fact that an unhealthy squad culture was able to continue unchecked," he said.

Victoria Police deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe said yesterday that the OPI's identification of the unhealthy culture in the armed offenders squad vindicated Ms Nixon's decision to scrap it.

"That culture does not, in my view, exist anywhere else in the organisation," he said.

But Police Association secretary designate Greg Davies said scrapping the 35-strong squad was an over-reaction.

He said only three members were dealt with in court, but disbanding the squad created the impression all the others also did something wrong.

"Those people were hard-working, honest, solid performers and were all tarred with the one brush," he said.

Mr Strong praised Victoria Police for acting swiftly to disband the squad.

"Not only has there been a significant reduction in complaints against detectives working in the area, but arrest and conviction rates have also improved," he said.

The OPI report reveals the old armed offenders squad solved only 47 per cent of cases between July 2003 and September 2006 whereas the new armed crime taskforce has a clean-up rate of 80 per cent.

There were 31 complaints lodged against armed offenders squad detectives in that 39-month period.

Camera in police cars 'to deter bashings

POLICE should install video cameras in police cars and throughout stations to deter officers from bashing suspects, the Office Of Police Integrity has recommended.

In a report tabled in Parliament yesterday into the now defunct armed offenders squad, OPI director Michael Strong said video surveillance would deter police from assaulting suspects and would protect them from false allegations of assault.

The investigation into the armed offenders squad found that the unit behaved as a force within a force, believing "that bashing a crook was a community service".

It found the squad deliberately branded itself as a separate unit within the police force that lived and worked by its own rules.

"Squad members became renowned for wearing black suits, white shirts, dark sunglasses and a team-issue black tie." The report said it was part of the image of "an unyielding clique or band, united together, separate and apart from the broader Victoria Police organisation. The outfits imitate the costumes worn by a network of violent criminals in the film Reservoir Dogs."

The OPI found the squad was poorly supervised, refused to alter its illegal behaviour and resisted any attempts at reform. It also found members were prepared to lie to cover-up assaults.

"The absence of a stable leadership and lack of diligent supervisors gave squad members free reign to use whatever police methods they liked.

"Throughout the OPI investigation into the armed offenders squad, police regularly invoked the code of silence in an attempt to frustrate the investigation," the report found.

"The investigation exposed the flagrant disregard by some members of the squad for suspects' rights."

In February 2006, the OPI began an investigation into allegations that suspects were being mistreated by detectives from the armed offenders squad. Three months later, an OPI secret camera hidden in one of the squad's interview rooms captured a suspect being bashed.

Three members of the squad, Robert Dabb, Mark Butterfield and Matthew Franc, were called to OPI hearings and denied involvement. They later resigned and earlier this year pleaded guilty to assaulting the suspect and attempting to mislead the OPI. They were sentenced to intensive corrections orders that involve community service work.

The OPI said the case exposed "the alarming willingness of some police to lie on oath or turn a blind eye to protect themselves or their colleagues".

The armed offenders squad was disbanded in 2006 and replaced with the armed crime taskforce. Figures published in the OPI report show that since the change, the solution rate has jumped from 47% to 80% and the complaint rate has dropped.

Mr Strong was critical of the Police Association's vigorous defence of the squad and its opposition to Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon's decision to disband the unit.

Police Association secretary Greg Davies rejected the criticism, saying the union believed the OPI had ignored due process during the investigation.

He said the association opposed "criminal conduct by any member of the police force".

Mr Davies said the association had been calling for cameras to be installed in all police cars for the past five years.

Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said all crime department interview rooms were fitted with new video cameras to monitor questioning. The state's 160 divisional vans, all 24-hour police stations and new 16-hour ones had also been fitted with cameras.

He said police would examine the recommendation of fitting the 2200-vehicle fleet with video cameras. "We think it has merit but we will look at it in the context of costs."

Police Minister Bob Cameron said the report exposed an unhealthy culture that had now been broken.

But Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu said he doubted the force was rid of the problems, and it would be wrong to assume that the culture was confined to police.


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