8th of February 2024, 11:03
Legislative Council of Victoria, Melbourne

David ETTERSHANK (Western Metropolitan):

I rise to make a brief contribution on the Justice Legislation Amendment (Police and Other Matters) Bill 2023. I will limit my contribution to the amendments aimed at strengthening police accountability. These amendments have been introduced in the wake of the Victorian Inspectorate’s special report entitled IBAC’s Referral and Oversight of Emma’s Complaints about Victoria Police’s Response to Family Violence by a Police Officer. Briefly, the special report finds that IBAC, the organisation tasked with police oversight in Victoria, seriously failed in its handling of Emma’s case. Victoria Police became aware that Emma was being abused by her husband, a senior constable, in 2018, and he was subsequently charged with family violence offences in 2020. Emma had provided confidential information to a family violence officer, including her plans to escape with her children interstate. That confidential information was leaked by her abuser, forcing her to abandon the plan and putting her and her children at considerable risk.

When Emma took her concerns about the handling of her case to IBAC, rather than investigating, IBAC referred her complaint to Victoria Police’s professional standards command for review. Aside from the danger this placed on Emma and her children, the delays in dealing with her case meant that the officer who leaked her information could not be prosecuted due to the existing statute of limitations on disciplinary action for the offence of unlawfully accessing, using or disclosing police information.

None of the opportunities to look closely at systemic issues within Victoria Police – the possible corruption within the force, the conflicts of interest affecting the independent investigation process and the evident unwillingness of officers to act against their own – were pursued. The inspectorate’s report exposed fundamental failings in our system of police integrity and oversight in this state. This bill addresses some of those issues. Enshrining the Victoria Police code of conduct and expressly stating that non-compliance can constitute a breach of discipline is commended. I feel that the use of a more forceful verb such as ‘does’ would be more effective, but it is a good first step. Authorising a discipline inquiry officer to direct a police officer or PSO to undertake an independent medical assessment of their physical and mental fitness to participate in disciplinary proceedings will prevent officers from avoiding or delaying the disciplinary process simply because they are on leave and will bring Victoria Police disciplinary procedures into line with other workplaces.

The extension of the statute of limitations for the offence of accessing, using or disclosing police information from 12 months to three years has been welcomed by stakeholders. Under section 227 of the Victoria Police Act 2013 it is an offence for personnel to access, use or disclose police information when it is not in line with their current duties. So to contextualise this: all police data is stored on their law enforcement assistance program database. Currently an officer who accesses the LEAP database without authorisation, which offenders may do for the purposes of stalking ex-wives or women in general, as was the case in Emma’s situation, will avoid criminal sanctions if they are not charged within 12 months. The problem is that these offences are often only discovered when the relevant officer is being investigated for other or more serious offences.

While the extension is a positive step, it does not really address the issue of poor internal data auditing within Victoria Police. This is 2024, after all. In any other organisation – certainly in our financial and medical institutions – when a person tries to access unauthorised material, there is an immediate alert because this is an unauthorised invasion of privacy. The Victoria Police database, which stores highly sensitive and confidential information, has no such proactive checks. We are forced to rely on police training and the line ‘Our officers are told not to breach the code of conduct’. Well, what could possibly go wrong with such an approach?

Members may recall the long debate that took place last year on the Health Legislation Amendment (Information Sharing) Bill 2023 and the need for proactive data security and auditing in the public health sector. We were assured that it is both entirely possible and absolutely necessary. Well, if it is good enough for health workers, why wouldn’t we want to see that applied to our police officers? So why isn’t it happening? Victoria Police employs state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, including facial recognition, drones and all sorts of high-tech gadgets, but when it comes to the internal monitoring of people’s privacy it is apparently not seen as a priority.

This goes to a broader issue of police accountability in this state. Victoria Police’s own Chief Commissioner of Police has recently acknowledged a rise in the number of police officers facing disciplinary hearings for misconduct ranging from family violence and drink driving to releasing confidential police information. Despite a catalogue of reports and recommendations, including the 2018 parliamentary committee report into police misconduct, the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants, the recommendations of the Yoorrook Justice Commission and the government’s own departmental review of police oversight, which seems to have quietly died sometime in 2022, this government has made no substantial change to the way complaints against police are handled. While IBAC was rightly chastised for its handling of Emma’s case, the fact is IBAC is not set up to be a police complaints body. IBAC handles at most only 2 per cent of all complaints made against police and refers the rest back to Victoria Police for internal investigation.

Legalise Cannabis supports this bill. As I said, it is a step in the right direction and is better than nothing, but it does not go far enough. We are also supporting the Greens amendments, which aim to give some certainty to those Victoria Police employees who make a complaint to IBAC regarding police misconduct that they will not be found in breach of their duties in doing so. Victoria Police need to address the systemic failings within their organisation if they are to maintain the trust and confidence of all Victorians. It should not be left to police to investigate their own. Ultimately Victorians deserve an independent police complaints body.


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