Victoria’s anti-corruption commissioner has warned there is a risk that police evidence could be tainted and officers may be prioritising credibility ahead of the administration of justice because the force is not controlling how its staff give witness statements.
The Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption commissioner, Robert Redlich QC, has urged Victoria police to strengthen its policies ahead of a coronial inquest which counsel assisting has indicated will examine claims officers were allowed to watch body-worn camera footage of a fatal shooting of a man experiencing a mental health episode before preparing their statements.
The shooting is the latest in a series of cases where the force’s practices in relation to evidence given by officers has been questioned.
Redlich said in a statement to Guardian Australia that the commission had made repeated and strong recommendations to Victoria police that it should stop allowing officers to watch their own footage, or footage captured from the body-worn cameras of other officers, before making statements. He said that position was also strongly supported by the state’s director of public prosecutions.
“A formal statement is a person’s independent recollection of the event,” Redlich said. “Allowing police officers to watch body-worn camera footage before making a statement may taint their fair and independent recollection of the event.
“Victoria’s police’s current policy position that officers may look at ... footage before making any statement is unsatisfactory as it emphasises the protection of officer credibility above the broader administration of justice considerations.”
The commission found during last year’s Operation Gloucester, which examined how Victoria police investigated the 1998 murders of officers Gary Silk and Rodney Miller, that officers had used “improper practices” when it came to witness statements that had endured since the 1990s.
These practices include officers using CCTV footage or the written statements of other officers when preparing their evidence.
Allowing police officers to watch body-worn camera footage before making a statement may taint their fair and independent recollection
The practice of officers sharing statements has also come to light in two civil court cases in the past five years. In both cases, police were successfully sued for using excessive force during an arrest.
In the case of Ethan Cruse, a member of the elite Special Operations Group admitted he should not have shared his statement with another officer who was yet to give evidence, and that it was a “poor” practice. Cruse was awarded $400,000 after a court found police had used excessive force during his arrest in 2015. He was later released without charge and the court found police had no reasonable basis to suspect him of any offence.
Supreme court judge Melinda Richards found the officer had been “disingenuous” in his evidence regarding the practice, concluding: “This was more than ‘poor practice’. It was a calculated attempt to ensure that [colleague] gave a statement that was consistent with his.”
Police also admitted sharing statements in relation to the violent arrest of a Melbourne woman in 2012, but no findings about the practice were made when the matter was finalised in 2017. The woman was awarded $85,000 after the court found that police had used excessive force in the incident.
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Redlich said officers should not use any record of events when making their statements. He said that official police training information including the Victoria police manual should be updated to ensure the practice was stamped out.
Concerns about the methods used when officers prepare statements comes as the Andrews government prepares to overhaul the police accountability framework in the state.
A Victoria police spokesperson said the police manual set out clear responsibilities and procedures in relation to how police should record information and events. But the spokesperson did not comment on how the manual related specifically to police statements.
“In the case of investigations, notes must include all relevant facts, information and observations, including details of the incident scene and the questioning of all suspects and witnesses.”
Earlier this month, Guardian Australia revealed that an inquest into the shooting of a man known as XY would include questions about how police completed their statements using body-worn camera footage, including footage captured by other officers.
“Victoria police have been requested to provide a statement outlining any [policies], procedure or training that concerns the use of such evidence in the preparation of witness statements,” counsel assisting the coroner Catherine Fitzgerald said.