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Whilst the 715 page Tasmanian Police Manual (TPM) has just recently been removed from the Tasmania Police website and is currently under review (although I am unaware which sections are the subject of the actual review), I was interested to read the “General Principles” of Investigation Procedures at page 295 of my saved document (para 4.5.3.1). The principles provide a useful starting point to evaluate the effectiveness and integrity of an investigation by the Tasmania Police. The section states:

“The general principles set out below apply to all police investigations and must be adopted by members engaged in those duties:

a) the ultimate objective in the investigation of a crime is the detection, prosecution and conviction of the perpetrator;

b) the principal role of the investigator in the achievement of this objective is to:

  reassure the victim; -establish that the crime was committed; -collect all forensic evidence; -gather intelligence and information; -identify and locate the perpetrator; -recover property involved; and -provide admissible evidence of the perpetrator’s guilt.

c) the initial police response affords the best opportunity to achieve a positive outcome. Particular care should be taken to undertake a thorough preliminary investigation and generate a comprehensive crime report;

d) members investigating crimes must at all times, operate within established legal and moral precepts, free from any suggestion of bias or discrimination;

e) all reported crime or criminal activity should be investigated;

f) every suspect should be interviewed;

g) every opportunity should be made to capture the “first story” of the suspect on video;

h) the names of all available witnesses are to be accurately recorded;

i) door to door inquiries are to be conducted in the vicinity of crime scenes and along likely entry and exit routes to identify and record all relevant information or possible witnesses. This is to occur as part of the initial police response;

j) an integral component of all investigations is continuous supervision to ensure quality assessment of the facts and that sufficient enquiries have been conducted;

k) victims should be informed at the earliest opportunity, and regularly updated, on the progress of police investigations; and

l) victim satisfaction and perceptions of police require careful consideration in the conduct of investigations.

These principles give an interesting insight into the mindset and culture of policing here in Tasmania. For example, the first principle stated immediately focuses on the “detection, prosecution and conviction” of the perpetrator. After 30 years in policing, I am also keen to see criminals dealt with according to the law. However, within the principles provided, there is no search for the truth as to what actually happened and there is a clear emphasis on getting a prosecution and conviction. Whilst this is an admirable outcome and important for public safety and well-being, this must be achieved in the context of police adopting an open mind, being objective and impartial in all aspects of their investigation, undertaking critical thinking at all stages of the investigation and being more concerned with ensuring a just and proper outcome as opposed to securing a conviction.

The second principle also focuses again on establishing that “the crime was committed” and identifying and locating the perpetrator. These principles are said to apply to “all police investigations”, which is of itself is misleading. For instances, an investigation may not involve any crime at all. For example, police investigate missing persons and inquire into the circumstances of a death on behalf of the Coroner. These investigations are not about finding the perpetrator or getting a “pinch”. Of more concern in the same principle is the statement “provide admissible evidence of the perpetrator’s guilt”! What about evidence collected by the police investigator that may be exculpatory or establish the innocence of the person under investigation, or cast some doubt upon their guilt?

The inclusion of paragraph (d) is to be commended but what are the established “moral precepts” for the Tasmania Police? Could members be guided rather by the values established within the police culture? Despite the presence of documented organisational values, in my experience, it is the strong cultural values of the organisation or profession that tend to prevail. And there is a very strong sub-culture within detective ranks, as demonstrated over the years by several Royal Commissions within Australia.

Paragraph (e) operates to demonstrate the idealistic nature of these principles. I find it difficult to believe that “all reported crime or criminal activity” is actually investigated. It just doesn’t happen in this day and age. Some sort of categorisation model or priority setting has to occur in an environment of scarce investigative resources. If an elderly woman rang police today reporting the possible theft of a pot plant would this really be investigated? Surely not!

Paragraph (f) seems an obvious requirement but how is “suspect” to be defined? Do Tasmania Police use the distinction between a “Person of Interest” (POI) and a “Suspect” that has developed in many other jurisdictions (and for very good reasons). Should a “Person of Interest” be interviewed? And what does an “interview” actually entail? Is it sufficient to speak to a Person of Interest, for example, and simply make notes in your official notebook? How is any “interview” to be recorded? Should “notebook interviews” be the subject of disclosure to the Defence? And what about interviewing of key witnesses? This must also be a stated requirement in the principles. In addition, it surely would be preferable if (f) included words like “under caution”? (Note, POI is defined in another Australian jurisdiction as “A POI is a person who has come into the scope of an investigation in some way, or may have information relevant to assisting an investigation. A POI is NOT necessarily a suspect).

Paragraph (g) is also commendable but does it happen in reality? Has it happened in recent major crimes? And, once again, what constitutes a “suspect”?

In relation to (h), surely it would also be expected that the contact details of witnesses are recorded and the requirement expressed in the principles?

I couldn’t agree more with (j), but criminal investigations need not only supervision, they require management and strong and visible leadership. I would have thought that any assessment or evaluation would be broader than determining “that sufficient enquiries have been conducted”.

The reference to victims throughout the principles should also be commended but they should clearly involve secondary victims such as the family of murder victims. The principles should also include a requirement for effective family liaison and notification.

In summary, it is hoped that the current review of the Tasmanian Police Manual undertakes a substantial review of the “General Principles” relating to police investigations so as to reflect the important role that police play in being the gatekeepers to the entire criminal justice system. There must be a more “scientific” and structured approach to the investigation of crime. One wonders what will guide the activities of Tasmanian police officers in the absence of such a critical document? Or is it just that the document is temporarily unavailable to the public? Clearly, these guiding investigative principles need to reflect the professionalism, objectivity and accountability required in modern times of our police officers. An urgent review is required.

From Barbara Etter’s blog here

• ABC Online: Police urged to modernise

First published: 2012-04-13 08:01 AM