Policing the police bent on making a buck

June 27, 2004


Brian Hardiman says some corruption is inevitable.
Picture:Paul Harris

Probing corruption in the force is never straightforward. Russell Skelton reports.

Catching crooked cops is no easy task. Just ask at the Ombudsman's Office, where a small team of investigators has been fighting the war against police corruption with varying degrees of success for more than a decade.

According to Brian Hardiman, the Ombudsman's senior police investigator, the task has become increasingly sophisticated as bent police push the boundaries, sniff out minor changes in the law to make a quick illicit dollar or simply fail to perform their duties.

Take a recent complaint of police drinking on duty. A member of the public claimed that traffic police were spending afternoons at a hotel carousing. A quick check of the running sheets showed the police in question appeared to be stopping more than their share of errant motorists. So how could they be drinking?

The answer was intriguing and sheds light on the antics of some police. Rather than interview the accused officers and alert them to the complaint, the Ombudsman put them under surveillance. It was soon shown that the police were in fact drinking and covering their tracks by noting down on running sheets the registration numbers of vehicles parked in the hotel car park. So a small but significant change was made to police duties. Officers were required to note not only the registration numbers of vehicles stopped, but the names of drivers.

The offending police were not deterred. On the way to a hotel they stopped by a used-car yard and noted the car registrations and names of the previous owners. Surveillance caught them out and they were finally disciplined. "The lesson is, no matter what the internal requirements are, you have to make sure that the system is being obeyed. You cannot simply rely on the complaints process to get to the heart of a problem," says Mr Hardiman, who has spent the past 16 years investigating complaints about police.

Four years ago the Ombudsman investigated more than 2000 cases of misconduct ranging from assault to framing suspects to bribe-taking. Since then the volume of complaints has dropped to about 1500 a year and the number of convictions and dismissals to 450.

Despite steady improvements in police behaviour, the force is now battling some of the most serious and far-reaching incidents of corruption in its history, incidents that have led to the adoption of more innovative methods of detection. One troubling problem that relates directly to the recent epidemic of corruption in the drug squad - where 20 officers have been charged - is the relationship between informers and detectives and supervision of so-called "chemical deliveries".

It's a grey area where the opportunities for corruption and police crossing the line are an ever-present danger.

Simply looking the other way can make millions of dollars. It has been shown that $70 worth of chemicals supplied by police to organised crime syndicates can be turned into a $10,000 windfall.

Mr Hardiman maintains, and senior police confirm, that the illegal drug industry is the biggest single source of corruption. Like illegal abortion in the 1960s and gambling in the 1970s, the drug trade feeds off community demand: the uninterrupted supply of dope, ecstasy and speed to Melbourne's night clubbers. With no perceived victims and convictions for trafficking difficult to prove, police working on drug-related crime are vulnerable to suggestion.

"Because of social ambivalence about the crime combined with the strong demand for the products, the incentive for police not to enforce the law is great," Mr Hardiman says. "And if police find it difficult to get convictions . . . taking a bribe can be seen as a win-win situation."

So how does the Ombudsman police the police? For a start, investigators, whether it be in the Ombudsman's Office or the police Ethical Standards Department, which has a staff of more than 200, don't sit around waiting for the phone to ring. Mr Hardiman says investigations, which are often joint operations, are far more proactive and examine the causes of corruption as well as its manifestations.

Officers in high-risk squads are automatically given probity checks. Investigators will randomly target police and closely monitor contacts between police and informers, where most trouble begins.

They will also scan new legislation to see if it provides any inadvertent opportunities to exploit the law, such as police involvement in the return of driver licences.

A key part of combating corruption is knowing where an officer is at a particular point in time: the starting point for investigators is the mandatory police diary.

Failed prosecutions and police searches are closely monitored. To obtain a warrant for a drug search, police need to produce a considerable amount of evidence. If a search fails to turn up results then investigators will assume there is a chance that the operation was "sold out". Often in these cases it is fellow officers who first raise concerns. In fact, the number of complaints made by police to the ESD has risen significantly, pointing to an erosion of the "brotherhood" culture that has hindered past investigations.

Police in high-risk squads have limited tenure. Under the former police chief commissioner Mick Miller, all detectives were required to go back into uniform before becoming eligible for promotion. This has a down side - the loss of "corporate knowledge".

Once corruption takes hold it can spread alarmingly fast. Operation Bart found in the 1990s that police were bypassing the system for securing premises broken into and referring the work to companies that paid kickbacks. The Ombudsman's investigation, which had the chief commissioner's full backing, led to more than 550 police being charged and disciplined. More than 100 quit the force.

Given that the scam was open only to uniformed police in the metropolitan area, the number of tainted police was high. The Ombudsman found it took just six weeks for a transferred member of an "infected" station to spread the kickback scam to another station. But in two stations where the commanding officers were resolutely opposed to the scam there was no infection at all.

Mr Hardiman believes this confirms the importance of teaching high ethical standards to police recruits. He says the basic premise for investigators is that a certain level of corruption is inevitable. Investigators accept that there is always a risk of compromise and that compromise can start off as something quite small.

"Things can be said to an informer that an officer may live to regret, that may give the informer a hold over the officer with his superiors."

A former senior police officer said: "What is critical in containing corruption is middle management; that is where the breakdown often occurs and that is where change must occur.

"The younger officers are today better educated and have higher ethical standards, but that can easily be undone by a senior sergeant telling them to look the other way."


Now, when do we get this in Canada?