Police cover up misconduct

by Chris Griffith
Written January 1993


my face


People who commit cowardly acts of violence against our police deserve this society's condemnation and the full force of the law against them.

So enunciated Jim O'Sullivan in October last year shortly after he was appointed Queensland's new Police Commissioner.

Mr O'Sullivan also said he would not tolerate violence by police against the public - axiomatic if this Police Service is to shrug off its reputation for thuggery earnt during the Bjelke-Petersen years.

It is therefore disturbing to consider the case of 17-year-old Adelaide boy Michael Paynter, who on 30 Nov 1991 sought police help at Brisbane's Juvenile Aid Bureau and instead found himself a victim of police assault.

Disturbing -- first because police responded to our initial inquiry by denying any such incident at the Juvenile Aid Bureau had occurred.

Initially a police spokesman told us the only incident was that of a 16-year-old boy who "put on a turn and tried to jump the counter". He said the boy was "quietened down by a senior constable who was spoken to by a commissioned officer - that's all".

Compare this to Michael's account. He says he was grabbed by the front collar and hauled onto his tip-toes by a male officer. Michael, who admits he has an abusive toungue, said: "Hey, chill out man!", a phrase which enraged the officer more.

He says the officer released his shirt and then "king-hit" him in the sternum. Michael, at the time a very slim and light 5'1", was knocked backwards. He says a female officer eventually restrained the male officer. He says she later told him the male officer would be in trouble.

The CJC investigated the incident and on January 7 last year wrote to Michael's mother, Mrs Judy Watson, and said: "as a result of that investigation, the Commission is of the view that a prima-facie case in support of the allegation exists."

However the CJC did not recommend an assault charge because, understandably, Michael was frightened to return to Brisbane. "It does scare you. You wonder whether another policeman is going to bash you," he said.

This leads to the second disturbing observation: namely, there are probably other victims of police assault who are too frightened to lay charges.

To be fair, Michael was informed of his rights by the Criminal Justice Commission. Mrs Watson said a CJC detective rang her and said he believed Michael should lay an assault charge. However Michael was prepared only to give a statement to South Australian police to be forwarded to Queensland authorities.

In the end, the youth's account of events turned out to be the more credible, as it was corroborated by a female police officer who witnessed the assault. The CJC found there was "a prima-facia case" against the assaulting officer. It was left with the option of recommending a misconduct tribunal hearing, or that the Police Service take its own disciplinary action.

The CJC chose to return the matter back to the police for determination, a decision it now regrets, because the police did not sack, demote, or fine the officer. The CJC said dismissal was a desirable option given the severity of the assault and given that the officer threatened the female officer should she report the abuse.

Instead, Mr O'Sullivan, Deputy Commissioner at the time, imposed a suspended sentence of 200 hours community work. Ironically, last week Mr O'Sullivan criticised the community order system as too lenient, and called for "the punishment to fit the crime".

Disturbing also is the internal police manoeverings that appeared to accompany the police investigation.

Former Deputy Commissioner David Blizzard, who was responsible for discipline, says his contract restrains him from discussing individual cases. However he said it was his practice to seek advice from the appropriate regional commander before taking disciplinary action.

That means the matter would have been referred to Mr Comrie, the new Victorian Police Chief who was then the Assistant Commissioner (Task Force) under whose jurisdiction the Juvenile Aid Bureau fell.

However it was not referred back to Mr Blizzard as expected. Instead it was dealt with by Mr O'Sullivan on March 20, 1992, eight days after Commissioner Newnham had stood down. Mr O'Sullivan imposed a community service order of 200 hours.

Mr Comrie was not prepared to clarify any role he had.

Why was South Australian Michael Paynter in Queensland anyway? Michael said he loved Queensland and the climate. He had lived on the Sunshine Coast the year before and thought he could work picking fruit. In late November 1991, Michael and a friend left Adelaide for Mooloolaba with little money and, as they found out, no prospect of work.

Ironically, Michael's mother, Judy Watson, had warned her son about Queensland police. "We said: Beware! The police have a reputation for being like the Gestapo up there," she said.

Two days later Michael, realising he was in trouble, rang his mother, Mrs Judy Watson, who told Michael and his friend to ask the police to help them return to Adelaide.

Michael was assaulted after he went to the Juvenile Aid Bureau for that help. Mrs Watson said Michael had got up to leave after police asked him to reveal the whereabouts of his friend who had been reported as missing.