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Critics of SA Police "secrecy" ignore the risks of the job

Opinion

A push to reveal the identities of SA Police officers who are the subject of disciplinary procedures could lead to increased safety risks for officers and their families, writes Police Association president Mark Carroll.

Some observers and commentators have shown just how little they understand about police disciplinary processes. And that failing translates into a sad disregard for the men and women who risk their lives to protect them.

An Advertiser headline last week screamed Cone of Silence in relation to investigations into alleged police wrongdoing.

The clear implication was that accused police were getting away with something, because the discipline system was structured to favour them.

But I wonder how many of those armchair critics would like to swap places with a police officer facing up to an internal investigation.

I wonder if a single one of them has ever even spoken with a police officer who has been the subject of such an investigation.

Do the critics know, for example, that the system denies police officers under investigation the right to silence? Unlike other citizens, Police are compelled to answer questions, irrespective of self-incrimination.

Would the critics be prepared to be stripped of one of their legal rights?

Let’s understand that police operate in the real world – the kind of place the cone-of-silence critics have likely never visited. It is a place where police get abused, threatened, spat on, assaulted and, in the worst cases, killed.

Their real-world dealings are with the violent, the unhinged, the drug-addled, the organised criminal, the paedophile, the thief, the fraudster… and countless other miscreants.

No surprise, then, that out of that environment come thousands of spurious complaints from angry, revenge-seeking wrongdoers caught out by committed police.

But so that justice is not only done but also seen to be done, those complaints are – at a heavy cost to the community – taken on and investigated.

Police Commissioner Grant Stevens. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The pressure and stress that innocent police officers suffer, until an investigation or a Police Disciplinary Tribunal (PDT) hearing clears them, is savage. And it can take months or even years to get to the point of exoneration.

In addition to that insufferable hardship, the critics want to condemn police officers to public exposure – to make them targets for social media and other haters.

It was for this very reason that the Police Association gave Commissioner Grant Stevens its total support when he recently fought to keep the identities of STAR Group officers from public exposure.

Were the officers to be identified in the Coroners Court, they would have faced a greatly increased risk to their personal safety.

But those who wrongly speak of a cone of silence and cloaks of secrecy appear to care little about police officer welfare.

They seem to give no thought to the fact that police are among the most scrutinised employees in the Australian workforce.

And the strict SA Police code of conduct imposes the highest standards of behaviour on police officers – in both their private and professional lives. This is a demand unknown in most other fields of employment.

The critics seem never to have thought about how this ill-considered push to dismantle a well-functioning complaints and discipline system will, if it succeeds, deter potential recruits.

Of course, in some cases, police officers are found to have erred. And, in the PTD – an employment tribunal – such a finding brings significant penalties, including hefty fines.

In cases in which police officers face criminal proceedings, the media freely report on the process and the outcome. Nothing of those matters is hidden or kept under wraps.

So the critics should ask themselves a few questions rather than descend into sarcasm from the safety of their armchairs. If they bring about the changes they seek to the police complaints system, will they also take responsibility for the fallout?

What will their response be if an innocent officer and his or her children are targeted in social media or even suffer physical attacks?

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman backed police against the implementation of the draconian Return to Work Act in 2015. This latest attack on the police complaints system and, by extension, the police themselves, calls for the same resistance from her and other legislators.

Police hold nothing in reserve – not even their personal security and safety – when it comes to protecting us. We, in return, owe them whatever formalised protections we can institute.

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