When a man was king-hit outside a nightclub in Civic about a month ago, sustaining a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain, ACT Policing decided it did not need to inform the public. The police rationale for keeping mum was sound, at least in theory. Believing they had sufficient information to identify the offender (the assault was captured on closed-circuit television), police reasoned that if the attack became common knowledge their investigation might somehow be compromised. Unfortunately, their confidence proved unfounded, and on Monday, ACT Policing finally revealed the details of the assault and asked for public assistance to identify the alleged attacker.
Had an arrest been made immediately after the incident, the decision to keep the community in the dark about a violent episode on the streets of central Canberra may not have been considered deserving of much scrutiny. However, four weeks have passed during which time the public was ignorant of a serious case of evidently alcohol-fuelled violence in which a young man was lucky not to have died.
The footage of the king-hit, which happened outside the Academy nightclub on Bunda Street about 4.15am on April 21, makes for sickening viewing. According to the venue owner, the CCTV vision was handed over to police within 24 hours of the incident. And Academy nightclub owner Frank Condi is unlikely to be the only person in Canberra "very surprised" that it took police a month to publicise the attack and call for witnesses.
Obviously there are times when police inquiries are potentially jeopardised by the release of a specific piece of information about an unresolved crime. But it takes some imagination to see how even the mere disclosure to city-goers that there had been an almost deadly assault outside a popular nightclub could have impeded police investigations. Indeed, a cynic might question the motive for secrecy given the police and the ACT government have repeatedly downplayed the issue of alcohol-fuelled violence in the CBD.
In December, The Canberra Times published a series of articles, "Punch Drunk: fighting violence in the city'', examining the rising number of alcohol-related offences in the Civic precinct. At the time, Police Minister Simon Corbell defended his government's supposedly tough 2010 liquor licensing reforms despite police data showing the promised crackdown had failed to have an impact on drunken violence in the nightclub district. For its part, ACT Policing claimed the increase was the result of more police on the inner-city beat detecting and reporting more offences.
The following month the NSW government introduced mandatory sentences for deadly one-punch assaults. Under the new law, anyone who fatally punches someone while intoxicated or drug-affected receives an eight-year jail term. The laws were sparked by a public outcry after two Sydney teenagers, Daniel Christie and Thomas Kelly, were killed by single punches in Kings Cross.
In this context, for an evidently alcohol-fuelled king-hit assault in the heart of Canberra only months later to go unreported by police for weeks is baffling to say the least. It's the very nature of this kind of attack that demands it be disclosed to the public, and not simply because it comes in the context of a national conversation about these crimes. There is also the more fundamental need to assure city-goers that such matters of public safety are actually being detected and investigated by police.
Quite simply, the public has a right to know. And not just when it suits police. The all-too-frequent "operational matters" line - the blanket defence cited by some agencies when keeping the public in the dark - is impossible to independently verify and hardly conducive to building public trust.
Police Minister Simon Corbell's response to questions from The Canberra Times on this issue can only deepen cynicism. Mr Corbell has refused to say when he was made aware of the April 21 incident and would not comment on the decision not to release information to the public for a month. Instead, he issued a written statement spouting statistics and offering the motherhood statement that alcohol-related crime continues to be an "ongoing priority for ACT Policing". Transparency about incidents of crime - that is, communicating openly with the community, and providing useful information in a timely manner - would go a long way towards reassuring Canberrans that this is indeed the case.