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A judge should clear the stink from police bugging

Date

EDITORIAL

<em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</em>

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

ONCE again, the NSW Police are operating under suspicion that evidence of improper and illegal conduct by some of them is not being fully investigated and conclusions about that conduct drawn. Nor has the responsibility of individual officers been weighed. Indeed, some of the officers involved in the dubious secret bugging of colleagues have continued to rise in the executive ranks of the force a decade after the scandal started to emerge.

Many details of the internal police investigations, by taskforces code named Emblems and Tumen, have finally seen the light of day, thanks to articles in The Sun-Herald and Herald by reporter Neil Mercer, and they are alarming enough.

In 1999, a unit called Special Crime and Internal Affairs started a long operation ostensibly to ferret out corruption in the force, by planting listening devices to monitor 112 officers and two civilians and tapping their telephones in some cases.

The highly secret NSW Crime Commission, which has powers to compel testimony, and the watchdog Police Integrity Commission also became involved in ''Operation Mascot''.

To add to the murk, some of the warrants authorising the bugging activity were issued by NSW Supreme Court judges on the basis of allegedly false affidavits supplied by the police - a cause of wider concern beyond this case, given that judges are such an important safeguard against the abuse of search and surveillance powers in this age of national security and organised crime fears.

It remains unclear what put these particular officers under suspicion - if anything. A small number of corrupt officers were jailed as a result, and few more left the force. But the net was cast absurdly wide. Indeed, some of the police more reluctantly involved believe that personal antagonisms were behind many of the targetings. The targets included even the then police commissioner Peter Ryan, the object of some resentment because he was an outside appointment.

That this operation was launched about 1999, only two years after the Wood royal commission into systematic corruption in the NSW Police, might - to many people - suggest incorrigibility. Yet there was enough concern within the police for the force to start its own corrective measures with the Emblems and Tumen investigations in 2003. The issue now is one of responsibility - made especially sharp because one of Operation Mascot's unfair targets, was Nick Kaldas, now the Deputy Commissioner and one of Mascot's leading officers. He and the other Deputy Commissioner, Catherine Burn, are leading candidates eventually to succeed Andrew Scipione as commissioner.

The puzzle is that nearly 10 years later there so much resistance to opening up the affair and letting transparency do its work.

The Police Minister, Michael Gallacher - so vocal in opposition about tabling the Emblems and Tumen findings - now thinks this might compromise operational methods. Why the switch? In such cases, the answer often lies in efforts by police trade unions to protect their members, by threatening strikes or non-co-operation.

Yet the NSW Police Association has been consistently calling for the reports to be made public. The Premier, Barry O'Farrell, looks to the inspector attached to the Police Integrity Commission, David Levine, QC. Levine is a former Supreme Court judge but he operates with only a secretary. Scipione argues Levine has been given all the information he requests. But in May, Levine revealed affidavits backing the applications for listening device warrants were not included in the case file he had been given.

Scipione risks looking as if he is protecting those who might be tainted by the affair, and the Premier being saddled with the kind of police scandal that never goes away. The case needs to be taken right away from the police, to a judicial inquiry. As some 20 judges of the NSW Supreme Court issued the Mascot warrants, a judge from another jurisdiction might be required.

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