TRUE OPINION: Recent scandals in Victoria have highlighted the need for reforms in the way complaints against police are looked at. True Crime News Weekly’s Melbourne correspondent, Gary Johnston, explains why it’s finally time for police accountability to go further than officers simply investigating their colleagues.
It was undoubtedly a difficult job, but one to which Yvonne Berry gave everything she had. A Victorian police detective of ten years standing, Yvonne worked in Internal Affairs, an area of work not generally appreciated within the rank-and-file of police officers, given that I.A.’s primary responsibility is to safeguard integrity and ethical practice; to police the police, in other words.
Naturally enough, this did not make Yvonne a particularly popular figure amongst her colleagues, given the force’s notorious culture of misplaced loyalty, typified by an unofficial code of silence which often ensures rogue officers are tolerated, rather than identified and exposed. Yvonne’s job was to try to change this invidious culture, the spurious quasi-philosophy of defending your fellow officer no matter what, and in that respect, she was a committed, passionate operator. She wanted to make a difference.
It’s hard to form any other impression now, other than admitting that Yvonne Berry failed.
A combination of the inherent frustrations of working in internal affairs, continually surrounded by suspicion and muttered threats of betrayal, and the trauma she suffered during the horrific Black Saturday bush fires of 2009, led to Yvonne Berry’s life and career unravelling, as she sought solace in alcohol, eventually taking extended sick leave in 2014, in a desperate attempt to impose some level of control over her escalating addiction and associated mental health issues.
On January 15th 2015, Yvonne hit rock bottom. Found drunk and incoherent by a passer-by in the Victorian city of Ballarat, police were called and, claiming to be unaware of identity and occupation- surely unlikely in the extreme – summarily arrested her, taking her to the local station and – presumably – the so-called drunk tank.
What happened next was not only disgraceful in terms of Victorian policing practices, but also raises innumerable questions about how the police are overseen and investigated in the light of actions which in addition to being unprofessional and lacking in ethical judgement were surely, without argument, palpably criminal in application and intent.
Security footage from the police cells tells its own grisly, despairing tale. Agitated and disoriented, Yvonne struggles with two officer and is subsequently pepper-sprayed, prior to being handcuffed, stripped to her underwear, kicked, stomped and then dragged across the floor by two uniformed custody officers. It’s a difficult watch, made all the more unpalatable when you consider the justification for his actions offered by one of the protagonists, Senior Constable Steven Repac, who claimed he was trying to “calm her down”, a ludicrous assertion utterly rejected by Yvonne Berry and, in fact, anyone else who watches the footage.
Yvonne herself is unaware if the violence she was subjected to occurred as a direct result of her previous work responsibilities, whether there was an element of crude payback involved, but this is entirely a moot point. If the numerous anecdotal accounts from people unlucky enough to be taken into police custody are to be believed, this level of brutality in the name of restraint is not entirely unprecedented. What is indisputable however, is that it is not acceptable and that officers involved in such behaviour have to be called to account.
Police misconduct in Victoria, including the use of excessive force, is investigated in the first instance by the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC), an anti-corruption agency with jurisdiction over the entire public sector. Despite being – ostensibly – an independent watchdog, IBAC habitually refers over 98% of its investigations back to Victoria Police leading to complaints of – at best – a conflict of interests.
In other words, allegations of Victorian police brutality are investigated by … Victorian police.
Such was the case in the Yvonne Berry situation, the subsequent enquiry which unconditionally cleared Senior Constable Repac of any wrongdoing was an internal investigation, carried out with the assistance of local officers in Ballarat, some of whom admitted to being aware of Ms Berry’s previous service in Internal Affairs.
Even more disturbingly, it is understood that the investigation was overseen by disgraced former Assistant Commissioner Brett Guerin, whose own conduct, including alleged racist and sexist comments, is itself currently being reviewed by IBAC.
Curiouser and curiouser.
This, however, was not the end of the matter.
Earlier this month, on November 12, a Victorian County Court jury found Steven Repac guilty of one single count of assault. But then, at a subsequent on November 21, it was revealed the Office of Public Prosecutions had decided to withdraw all four remaining charges against Repac and the one common assault charge which was facing his co-accused, 48-year-old Leading Senior Constable Nicole Munro.
It is understood that, after the jury failed to reach a verdict in the original trial, Ms Berry herself, completely exhausted after nearly four years of stress, informed the prosecution that she did not wish the matter to proceed, contending that “I just want to get on with my life”.
Whilst this may seem reasonable from Yvonne Berry’s position, and given what she’s been through, moving on is certainly her prerogative, this does not in any way explain the inexplicable nature of how – in most cases, despite the heady claims of independence from IBAC – police corruption and misconduct is investigated and examined, by other police.
In September, a Victorian Parliamentary Committee recommended an overhaul of IBAC referred police internal investigations, labelling the current system “extraordinarily complex and confusing”, based on an “intricate, overlapping, and sometimes fraying patchwork of laws, policies and processes”.
Now that the Victorian government have been delivered the resounding mandate in last weekend’s election, perhaps we can now expect the self- proclaimed “most radical administration in Australia” to consider establishing a truly independent police misconduct body and ending internal enquiries with all their attendant conflicts of interest.
The Victorian police motto, translated from the original French ‘tenez la droit‘ is ‘protect the right’. Victims of the present system, like Yvonne Berry and others, will fervently hope such protection will no longer be provided to fellow officers who seem to continue to believe they have the right to display behaviour lacking in integrity, ethical judgment and, indeed, common decency.