Victoria Police: why were they so deadly for so long?

Victoria Police might have been especially violent and deadly from their origins.

First, a correction of some lazy history, that Australia got an English model of a criminal-justice system, is in order. Australia got Pentonville Prison as a model for our slammers and English common law for our gavel bangers, but the assumption we got Sir Robert’s Peelers for truncheon twirlers needs a closer look.

In Victoria, the police body may well have been Peeler English, but the police heart and arm was Irish. Robert Haldane, the Victorian force’s only historian, expected to find a lot of Irish immigrants in the colony’s police – the Kelly Gang’s 1878 victims were Lonigan, Kennedy and Scanlon after all – but 82 per cent makes Victoria’s police more Irish than the famously Irish NYPD ever was. 1 A great many of these men had been police before their Victorian gig: in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, or wherever a civil authority was needed to enforce Native Lines in imperial possessions. Others had served in the military, often in colonies. In Ireland, Africa and Allahabad, these young men’s nights were not spent sharing a jar or a pipe outside the dance hall with the local louts, or being polite to the family of a local girl they fancied; they were in lonely barracks, feeling unwanted, an ‘us’ in a sea of ‘them’.

Between the time Ned Kelly wrote that the force was ‘a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat-headed big-bellied magpie-legged narrow-hipped splay-footed sons of Irish Baliffs or English landlords… better known as officers of Justice or Victorian Police’, and the time of the Victoria Police armed robbery squad’s worst excesses in the 1980s, is five to seven police careers. Did that sense of Them and Us survive?

There’s a problem with the Irish-dunnit theory. Early NSW and WA police had many, but not as many, Irish cops too. T’othersider, a WA magazine defined Policeman as ‘a man with a uniform, a brogue and big free thirst’. Yet their state police don’t shoot folk nearly as much.

I suspect that the death of David Gundy saved lives in NSW; and that Blackfellow, Catholic Weekly, and other community action after his 1989 death was the Big Brake on NSW Police shootings. There was a sustained outcry after the NSW Police Special Weapons and Operations Squad mistakenly killed him in 1989. So much so, that few New South Welshmen now remember that the SWOS was pursuing another blackfellow, John Porter, who’d shot two of their plainclothes anti-theft constables three days before. One cop, Alex McQueen, later died; Porter was apprehended in Southeast Queensland. 2 After Gundy’s death, suggestions NSW Police had unofficial kill policies or were trigger-happy never arose again.

Whatever state of Australia you lived in during the time of Victoria Police’s worst excesses, Ireland was on your TV news a lot. ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland on screen saw a seamlessness between police, paramilitary and military power in the streets of Belfast and guarding the British Conservative Party conference after an Irish Republican Army bomb ripped the Brighton hotel Maggie Thatcher and her Cabinet were staying in, killing five people, in 1984. When the Sydney Hilton was bombed, where Australia’s and India’s prime ministers, among others, were staying four years earlier, it seemed the federal government was responding to the outrage when they pushed states to set up paramilitary forces, Special Weapons and Tactics units, SWAT teams. However, the fed’s anti-terrorist plans for these were laid many months before the bombing, as shown by J Hocking, Jude McCulloch & others. Victoria got its Special Operations Group, SOG, the self-styled ‘Sons of God’, motto blessed are the peacemakers… for they shall inherit the Earth, in this way. SOG was trained by the Australian Army’s Special Air Service Regiment. Our SAS were trained by the UK’s SAS, and those trainers worked in Northern Ireland. In its 33-year existence, the SOG has yet, as far as I know, to nab a terrorist; but it chewed up armed robbery suspects in the 1980s and 1990s.

Like the laws allowing Vic state police to tap phones and bug places, laws that were ushered through Parliament 12 nights after the Walsh Street killings, the ‘extraordinary’ circumstances that created SWATs have undergone normalization to the point of being commonplace and integral to daily police operation.

Until 1994, before the number hit its eventual record eight 3 dead that year, one every six weeks on average, Victorian cops just kept on shootin’. It seemed like they were running out of armed robbers, so turned their guns on emotionally disturbed people behaving dangerously. There was plenty of community outrage and action, and powerful lawyers locked onto the legs of police, but, until 1994, they never looked like bringing down the beast inside. It is still a problem, though a much lesser one, though these PSOs are a worry for the future.

To Victoria Police’s great credit, police command admitted they did not know how this deadly situation had come about, commissioned a task force to find out, and launched Operation Beacon, a radical change in the way police used firearms, new training or re-training.

In 1995 they shot three dead.

In 1996 they shot no-one dead.

 

 

1 The People's Force: a history of the Victoria Police, Melbourne UP, 1986

2 My bookazine Cop Killers Wilkinson, 2010 explores Porter’s shooting of McQueen. John Birmingham’s Leviathan 1999 Random has an excellent account of the Gundy shooting.

3 Some sources, including Jude McCulloch, Blue Army: paramilitary policing in Australia, Melbourne UP, 2001, list nine deaths in 1994.