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Lindt Cafe siege inquest highlights need for police to change their closed-off culture

While noting the bravery of the police officers involved in the 2014 Sydney siege, a NSW coronial inquest also highlighted that mistakes were made. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Lindt Cafe siege inquest highlights need for police to change their closed-off culture

The New South Wales coroner, Michael Barnes, made 45 recommendations in his report on the Lindt Cafe siege. These recommendations, released on Wednesday, mainly deal with police procedures and responses to terrorist incidents like the siege, which resulted in the deaths of two hostages and the offender in Sydney in 2014.

Using hindsight can be beneficial

Much of the controversy around the coronial inquest rested on the perceptions of hindsight being used to critique police responses.

Barnes, however, took a practical view of hindsight. He argued the type of insight and knowledge it affords can be applied to the benefit of both police and the public. He noted the undeniable bravery of the officers involved on the night of the siege, but also highlighted that mistakes were made.

To some extent the police were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. If they had entered before any hostages were killed, and this action resulted in a death, they would then be subject to the question: why didn’t they wait?

Issue of police culture

One important issue highlighted by the inquest was the issue of police culture.

Police culture is unique. It is shaped by the job police are required to undertake, and the public perceptions of their role.

In the 1980s, Tony Fitzgerald devoted a large part of his report on systemic corruption in the Queensland Police Service to police culture. He noted that a police service’s culture is of vital importance to the community due to the service’s numerical strength, political influence, physical power and armed nature.

Thus, Fitzgerald argued, police officers collectively form a strongly bonded separate social group with a unique culture. This culture has been described as a set of informal norms unique to policing.

The importance of external review

Policing culture is often associated with a lack of transparency and a resistance to external examination.

This was exhibited in 2013, when former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty reported that police in Queensland did not see themselves as public servants, and actively resisted attempts at interaction from other government departments. Keelty referred to it as the “blue iron curtain”, and raised issues about a lack of transparency and the service being risk-averse.

During the inquest into the Lindt Cafe siege this resistance manifested in senior NSW police officers attempting to avoid giving evidence on their actions on the day of the siege.

Barristers for the then-police commissioner, Andrew Scipione, and deputy commissioner and counter-terrorism chief, Catherine Burn, argued that neither played a substantive role in the incident. Their submission was that:

They did not give any order, direction or provide any guidance or advice in respect of the conduct of the siege on the day.

In other words, there was a distinct lack of leadership in a crucial event – and a near-washing of their hands of any responsibility for what happened.

This effectively left the responsibility with their lower-level commanders, despite the chain of command and control being clear in a police service. Responsibility ends at the top of the chain.

It also sent a clear message that transparency was not a priority in NSW Police – and risk aversion was.

Resistance to internal transparency

A culture of resistance to transparency was highlighted in Queensland with the April 2017 release of an auditor-general report into crime data being inaccurate and unreliable. The report said:

As a result, reported crime statistics are questionable at best and unreliable at worst, and should be treated with caution.

It was further identified that senior managers had placed perceived pressure on officers to reduce crime, which had led to the data being manipulated to meet these goals. When this was put to Queensland Police Service commissioner Ian Stewart, he simply denied the allegations were true.

… to imply that officers are deliberately and corruptly manipulating crime data to suit some officially sanctioned agenda is simply not correct.

He also argued that the issues were not systemic, despite 22% of all crime data for Queensland being identified as potentially faulty.

Allegations have now been made that the police officers who blew the whistle on inappropriate practices suffered retaliation. Queensland’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Crime and Corruption Commission, is investigating any actions managers may have taken against them.

When a senior Queensland police officer argued the service was failing people due to a failed restructure under Stewart, his response was:

… do they just want to bitch about the problem? … then maybe they should think about their careers and what might be a better option for them.

Such responses from police leadership do not encourage people to speak out about issues. Nor do they help create a model of transparency.

Lessons police need to learn

If the Lindt Cafe inquest has highlighted anything, it is that the culture of resistance to transparency from senior elements of police services needs to change.

Constructive criticism that uses evidence to identify sub-optimal performance and bring about organisational improvements is crucial to police responses. Police services must embrace the lessons from processes such as the inquest into the Lindt Cafe siege.

To that end, it is encouraging that the new NSW Police commissioner, Mick Fuller, has accepted the coroner’s findings. He said:

I’m standing here again saying we’ve learned lessons … I think once people go through the recommendations, as the commissioner, I will accept the criticism and I will ensure those lives are not lost in vain.

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