The Victorian public have called for independent police oversight for years. Victoria has Australia’s largest and most well-funded police force. However our police oversight and complaints system is vastly inadequate. No change has happened despite the following systemic issues:
- One in five (21.5%) people in Victoria do not trust the police;
- Victoria Police has paid out more than $42 million in the last five years in legal and civil settlements for their bad behaviour;
- In 2020/2021 only 0.4% of all investigations into allegations against the police were independently investigated by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) (5 in total);
- 41% of complaints made by Aboriginal showed evidence of bias by police officer conducting the investigation. Conflict of interests arose in 84% of complaint investigations, half of these conflicts were not dealt with appropriately;
- IBAC and Victoria Police have failed to effectively protect victims of family violence perpetrated by police officers;
- Individuals are forced to use the courts to remedy police investigation failures;
- Victoria Police misidentify the victims of family violence in up to one in ten cases;
- Victoria Police routinely engage in racial profiling against people including: Aboriginal, African, Pacific Islander and Middle-Eastern/Muslim people.
In recent years the following investigations have raised serious concerns about Victoria’s police complaint system:
- Victorian Inspectorate (2022)
- Inquiry into Victoria’s Justice System (2022) (Recommendation 28, p256)
- Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants, Final report, pp. 234–235.(2021)
- Supreme Court of Victoria (2019)
- Inquiry into the Oversight of Police Misconduct and Corruption in Victoria (2018)
- 2015 Charter Review by Michael Brett Young (Recommendation 26)
- UN Human Rights Committee, Horvath v Australia (2014)
As IBAC is primarily an anti-corruption body, fundamentally its processes are not victim-centric. IBAC does not prioritise, nor identify, its role as providing a complaint investigation service to victims of police harm. The secrecy that may be required for investigating public sector corruption is incompatible with transparent and effective complaints system that supports victims. Victims need support, procedural fairness and transparency, and concomitantly Victoria Police need to be publicly accountable to create cultural change required for people to have trust and confidence in police.
- IBAC’s primary aim is to improve Victoria police investigations of themselves not to conduct investigations of the police. This is inconsistent with evidence that there is an inherent conflict of interest involved in police investigations of themselves;
- IBAC is not established to support and assist people and communities who have been mistreated by the police for example:
- People who make complaints to IBAC are routinely subject to gag orders;
- People who make complaints to IBAC are not entitled to use FOI for their IBAC files;
- People who make complaints to IBAC are not entitled to basic principles of natural justice;
- IBAC’s decision-making is not governed by clear, publicly available guidelines;
- Complainants are not entitled to have a say about the conduct of the investigation;
- IBAC does not respond to people who make complaints about police in a trauma-informed manner that centres the victim. People who make complaints against police behaviour provide a valuable service to the community and need to be provided with support and resources, including legal assistance, to assist them to engage in the process;
IBAC’s lack of complainant-centredness conflicts with international standards for effective police investigations.
IBAC does not prioritise complaints about human rights abuses; the treatment of victims of family/sexual violence; or racial profiling and other forms of discriminatory policing. However, these are precisely the matters where community requires independent, effective investigation.
As Jay says: You will not find a victim who hasn’t found dealing with IBAC traumatic, frustrating, and futile. You will not find a family violence complainant to IBAC who is happy with IBAC;
Victoria needs a powerful police ombudsman that will independently and effectively investigate complaints against the police.
There are no police ombudsman or police oversight body in Australia that meets international standards for an effective independent complaints system.
The Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland (PONI) is widely regarded as the best practice in police complaint investigations. PONI receives and investigates all complaints against police in Northern Ireland and can take action against officers. PONI briefs the Coroner in death in custody matters, briefs prosecutors when police are charged with criminal offences and makes enforceable recommendations to the police about disciplinary outcomes for police.
Investigators should not all be former police officers. While 25% of Police Ombudsman staff are former police officers, the culture, ‘leadership and attitudes within PONI are assertively civilian.’ PONI investigations are widely respected by both the public and police.
This is the model we need in each jurisdiction in Australia.
Read the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service’s great policy brief on this issue here: Reforming-Police-Oversight.pdf (vals.org.au)
VALS also held a webinar on who polices the police, which you can watch here.
To learn more about what a Police Ombudsman could look like, have a read of the Police Accountability Project’s 2017 policy paper on independent investigations of Complaints against Police here: Policy-Briefing-Paper-2017_online.pdf (policeaccountability.org.au)
You can read the Department of Justice and Community Safety’s (DJCS) own summary of Victoria’s police oversight system here: Systemic review of police oversight | Engage Victoria
Read the report on the Police Complaints Clinic that was run by the Police Accountability Project.
You can also watch Australian Lawyers Alliance webinar on reforming Victoria’s external police oversight system
Watch the panel discussion held by the Australia Lawyers Alliance and Inner Melbourne Community Legal on what a Police Ombudsman could look like in Victoria here: Victoria Police Ombudsman – webinar (vimeo.com)