The time for reviews, reports and hearings is over: Victoria Police’s oversight system is broken

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Some of the most amazing things I have witnessed in my lifetime as a police misconduct lawyer are the hearings of the Yoorrook Justice Commission. I watched as many First Nations people, including many former clients, gave evidence about horrific treatment at the hands of Victoria Police.

The gravity of these stories led the Chief Commissioner of Police to apologise to First Nations people and concede that the current justice system, and specifically the Victoria Police complaints system, is failing.

Currently, the vast majority of police complaints are handled by Victoria Police directly. Credit: Eddie Jim

Yet despite a 2018 bi-partisan Parliamentary Committee report, a 2020 Royal Commission recommendation, a departmental review, a truth-telling justice commission and the police’s own Chief Commissioner acknowledging its system is failing, the Victorian state government has made no significant change as to how complaints against the police are managed.

If you have a complaint about a bank you can go to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority. If you have a complaint about a hospital you can go to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. If you make a complaint about a lawyer you can go to the Legal Services Commissioner. Yet when it comes to police, with their unparalleled powers that can directly affect our liberty, physical safety and human rights, at least 98 per cent of Victorians will be dealt with by the same organisation they are complaining about.

Currently, people wanting to complain about Victoria Police can do so via the Independent Broad-Based Corruption Commission (IBAC) and also directly to Victoria Police. As it stands, though, IBAC handles just 1 to 2 per cent of all complaints made against police and refers the rest directly to Victoria Police for them to investigate internally. What’s more, Victoria Police does not publish any statistics about the outcomes of these complaints or investigations.

There is a growing call for an independent police ombudsman in Victoria, similar to the model adopted in Northern Ireland, where their complaint-centric ombudsman offers independent oversight and deals with all police complaints. These are all the things we desperately need in Victoria.

External police oversight is about ensuring Victorians have an independent body that they can make complaints about the police to if and when needed, and also involves monitoring police powers, audits of police systems and operations, and sometimes legal proceedings.

On September 4, 2018, a Victorian Parliamentary Committee composed of members of the Liberal, Labor and Greens parties worked together to deliver a bi-partisan report on external police oversight.

The 2018 report recognised that the existing external police oversight model was not working. The Committee made numerous recommendations on how to fix the issues and many within the police accountability sector argued it didn’t go far enough. But no one could say that parliament had not appreciated the model was found wanting. Significantly, it was investigating a system that had been set up just six years earlier in 2012.

Further recommendations for change then came in November 2020, when, following the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants (informally known at the Lawyer X Commission), a key recommendation of Commissioner Margaret McMurdo AC was that Victoria’s external police oversight model be strengthened.

Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police Shane Patton appeared at the Yoorrook Justice Commission in May.Credit: Joe Armao

At the time, the government publicly committed to implementing all of the Commission’s recommendations. Though the Department of Justice and Community Safety began a thorough review of the model, the department’s website shows it is yet to complete the actions of “targeted stakeholder consultation” or “draft bill completed” and the last mentioned date is February 2022.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission followed, as did a steady increase in the number of complaints about police misconduct being made to IBAC, which lead to the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police going so far as to email staff telling them to pull their heads in, in March 2023.

Admittedly, IBAC has a lot on its plate, but it is also not designed to be a complaint body or an ombudsman; it is a corruption commission not designed to deal with individual complaints. The structure of IBAC is that it is specifically designed not to be complainant-centric because this would defeat the intention of being able to freely investigate corruption. Their set-up means they are not the answer when it comes to independent oversight of police.

Five years on today, the government is yet to introduce any legislation that came from the 2018 report or adopt any of its recommendations.

The time for reviews, reports and hearings is over. Our external police oversight system is broken. Victorians should not have to wait another five years for action.

Jeremy King is a Principal Lawyer and head of the Police Misconduct team at Robinson Gill.

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