My First Blow On the Whistle

In 1982 I was a young Constable of Police, stationed at a busy inner suburban police station. Until this particular day I had not directly experienced anything that I would categorise as corrupt conduct, but when I was asked to avoid charging a local cop-friendly panel beater, I knew exactly what I was dealing with. What I didn’t know about was the impact seemingly low-level corruption can have on a whistleblower, and the lasting effects that can follow.

Report of a minor assault

Constable Peter Mericka

Constable Peter Mericka – circa 1982

It was the early 1980’s, and I had recently been appointed to a busy inner suburban police station. I was working at the watch-house counter when two Vietnamese men came into the police station. (At this time the police force was a man’s world, and a white man’s world at that. Racism was common, and the police station where I worked had a very large Vietnamese community. Suffice it to say that the relationship between police and the Vietnamese community was not as good as it should have been.)

The two men had minor injuries and, with the aid of a telephone interpreting service, they explained what had happened to them. They had been involved in a minor car accident, and happened to be in front of a panel shop owned by the driver of the other car. The panel shop owner invited the two men into his workshop, then closed the door behind them and demanded that they pay for the damage to his car. The panel shop owner assaulted the two men, and they had come to the police station to report the matter.

I took statements from the two men, and some witnesses, and it became apparent to me that the panel shop owner was a bully who had assaulted the men for no reason other than to reinforce his demand that they should immediately pay for damage to his car. As the panel shop was only a few doors away from the police station, I telephoned the owner, discussed the incident with him, and then made an appointment for him to attend at the police station to be interviewed.

The offender had mates at the police station

The panel shop owner came to the police station later that day and, as he entered the watch-house, he called out to various police officers by name. “Hi, Andre”“G’day Paul” etc. He seemed to know everyone, even the Senior Sergeant. The police answered him in a way that confirmed that he was well known and liked by the local police. Someone asked, “Hi Sam, what are you doing here?” Sam answered with, “One of you blokes called Mericka reckons I assaulted someone.” I could sense that the other police, and the Senior Sergeant in particular, were not happy about Sam having to be interviewed.

I took Sam to an interview room and began the interview. Only a few minutes after I had started talking with Sam, there was a knock at the door and a Senior Constable beckoned me to leave the room and talk with him. He was straight to the point, and the conversation went like this:

“Do you know who that is?”

“Yes, his name is Sam XXXXX”.

“Yeah, I know his name, but do you know WHO he is?”

“I think he’s the owner of the panel shop down the road.”

“That’s right; he owns the panel shop, and he looks after the boys. If the div van gets a ding in it on night shift or something like that Sam will fix it, no questions asked, for nothing. He’s a good bloke, OK.”

“I’ve got no doubt that he’s a good bloke, but I’m doing an interview and he’ll get his say about what happened.”

“Mate, you can’t even interview him; you just stop everything now, and let him walk out.”

“He’s punched the daylights out of these two blokes for no reason, it’ll be a matter for the court.”

“Mate, they’re only a couple of gooks, and you’re going to charge Sam for assaulting a couple of gooks?

“That’s right, and what you’re suggesting to me is corruption – not charging him because he does us favours is corruption.”

“It’s not corruption, it’s just working with the community; he’s a good member of the community, and we look after people like that.”

l was quite disgusted, and I told this policeman what I thought of him and his approach to community policing. (I should add that my disgust was limited to this particular policeman and this particular police station. I had transferred to this station from Footscray Police Station, where I had enjoyed two of the best years in my career. By comparison, I recall a particular incident at Footscray where a Senior Constable walked into the meal room, threw his cap onto the table and announced, “Well, we can forget about half-priced pizzas in future; I just booked the pizza guy.” At Footscray no traders were under any illusion that they could “buy” the local police. I was able to enjoy my 18 year police career because the majority of police were of this mould.)

Brief submitted for prosecution

Brief of Evidence - Assault

Constable Peter Mericka – Brief of Evidence – Assault

I completed the interview, and submitted the brief for prosecution. Some weeks later I received a telephone call from the District Inspector. The Inspector told me that he had received my brief, and that it had two reports attached to it. One report was from my supervising Sergeant, and the other was from the Senior Sergeant; both had recommended that there should be no prosecution and had provided arguments in favour of the brief being endorsed as “NOT APPROVED” for prosecution.

Advice from the Chief Inspector and a blast of the whistle

The reason the Chief Inspector had telephoned me was because he could see that the evidence of unlawful assault was quite clear, and he knew why the Sergeant and the Senior Sergeant had gone to such lengths to “write Sam out of trouble”. I told the Chief Inspector about the incident with the Senior Constable at the door of the interview room and expressed my views on such behaviour. In effect, I was blowing the whistle on corrupt conduct at my police station.

The Chief Inspector told me that he knew what was going on at that police station, and that he would be approving my brief for prosecution. But he also told me “watch your back because you’re going to be very unpopular”. He also advised me to transfer to another police station as soon as possible.

[Note: When the Chief Inspector told me that he was aware of what was going on at the police station, he also made the comment that sometimes police can get a “a little too close” to some members of the community. He also mentioned a character known to the police as “Chooka”; a local tow-truck operator. Chooka was constantly at the police station, and he seemed to have free access to areas that were normally off-limits to non-police. Associates of Chooka were in awe of him and his close relationship with the police (something very handy for a tow-truck operator at that time). I understand that Chooka even played the role of Santa Clause at the police station’s Christmas Party.]

I think it is only fair to acknowledge that the Chief Inspector had taken a brave step in approving my brief for prosecution, because it was something of a slap in the face for both the Sergeant and the Senior Sergeant. These two sub-officers had gone to the trouble of attaching written reports to a brief submitted by a very junior police Constable. They had supported their arguments by reference to case-law and had made clear their views on how the law should be applied (it was quite unusual for two reports to be attached to a brief of evidence in this way). By authorising the brief for prosecution, the Chief Inspector was, in effect, stating in writing that he preferred the legal position of a junior Constable as against that of a Sergeant and a Senior Sergeant; both of whom would have felt angry and humiliated as a result (and hence the Chief Inspector’s telephone call and warning to me).

I have no doubt that the Sergeant and the Senior Sergeant would have “bad-mouthed” the Chief Inspector to the officers under their control, describing him as weak and/or lacking in an understanding of the realities of street policing.

The court hearing

On the day of the hearing I went to the court to give evidence, but no evidence was required. Sam had entered a plea of “guilty”, and the prosecutor simply read a summary of the matter to the magistrate. What happened next was quite extraordinary. The prosecutor told the magistrate that the Senior Sergeant from my police station was to give character evidence for the defendant – something that was contrary to the regulations set out in the Police Manual. As the Senior Sergeant walked towards the witness box the Magistrate, Mr Jack Maloney, simply asked, “Good bloke is he Senior Sergeant?” to which the Senior Sergeant nodded. The magistrate then indicated that he didn’t need to hear anything further, and put Sam on a Good Behaviour Bond.

Subtle corruption

Now, I am not suggesting that the magistrate did anything wrong, nor am I suggesting that a good behaviour bond was an inappropriate outcome in this case. The point I do wish to make, however, is that the way things unfolded confirmed to other police at my station that Sam, my Sergeant and my Senior Sergeant were good men who had done nothing wrong, while I was a pedantic trouble-maker who made things unnecessarily difficult. The two assault victims were forgotten about entirely.

I was extremely disappointed with the way in which the Sergeant and the Senior Sergeant had attempted to have my brief cancelled, without discussing the matter with me, and I regarded the behaviour of the Senior Sergeant as quite under-handed. The Senior Sergeant had even traveled to the court in a different car, so that I was taken completely by surprise when he approached the witness-box to give evidence.

Ongoing consequences

The matter did not end at the court. When I returned to the police station I was ridiculed for having caused trouble for Sam, while the Sergeant and Senior Sergeant were hailed as heroes for having “looked after a decent bloke”. Things became quite difficult for me after the Sam case. I found myself on foot patrol more often than most, or being rostered for tasks that no-one else wanted to do.

The effects continued for a few more years, with telephone calls preceding my arrival at my next two postings. At one of these a Sergeant, with whom I became good friends, eventually told me that shortly before my arrival at that police station, he had received a telephone call from a mate of his, warning him that I was “too straight to be trusted”. He told me this after I had recounted the above incident to him. The Sergeant’s mate was the Senior Sergeant who had sought to have my brief against Sam cancelled, and who had given character evidence at the court hearing.

What I learned from this incident

I learned a number of lessons from this experience:

  • Being right isn’t good enough, it is also important to consider the consequences of being right or of “doing the right thing”;
  • Corruption can be very subtle, and need not be for immediate financial gain or benefit;
  • People can engage in corrupt behaviour, knowing that it is wrong, but incorrectly believing that it is for a greater good;
  • Identifying behaviour as corrupt causes extreme resentment, and this invariably leads to a cover-up of one form or another;
  • There will always be those who support the person who stands up to corruption, but more often than not, fear will prevent them from showing support;
  • Some supporters will express solidarity with the whistleblower, but will do so only in private so as to avoid the attendant risks of standing with the whistleblower;
  • A whistleblower must adopt the Scout motto, and “be prepared”
  • Standing up to corruption, without blowing the whistle (i.e. just doing the right thing instead of lodging a formal complaint) can still have the same consequences as blowing the whistle;
  • Those who engage in low-level corruption usually get away with it; this can embolden them and encourage further corrupt behaviour;
  • The consequences for a whistleblower can be long and enduring; and
  • The whistleblower is not the only affected by the consequences of disclosing corruption; his or her family will have to deal with the personal toll.

I was so bothered by what had happened as a consequence of this incident that I kept a copy of this brief as a reminder of “the bad old days” and as an example of how low level corruption can have a snowball affect on a whistleblower. Every now and then I would read through the brief again and remind myself that I did the right thing, and take pride in the way the incident made me a stronger person and a better police officer. [View a copy of The Assault Brief]

Years later I bumped into a police officer who had been stationed at that police station when I was there, and I told him how much I hated my time there. To my surprise, he told me that he felt the same way. I was surprised because my recollection was that he was “one of the boys”, while I seemed to be on the outer for not being of the same mindset. He told me that being one of the boys was difficult because he was aware of goings on that he didn’t agree with, but felt that he couldn’t say anything. This is one of major obstacles to dealing with corruption at any level. The fear of becoming an outsider to those you work with, as well as a fear of not being believed.

Footnote – “Scales of Justice” and a example of good policing

ABC Television – “Scales of Justice”

In 1983 the ABC presented a min-series on police corruption titled “Scales of Justice” in which a young Probationary Constable is placed in a dilemma where he has to choose between blowing the whistle and dobbing in a fellow police officer. He chooses to do the right thing, and suffers severe consequences as a result. I felt that it should become compulsory viewing for training and discussion at every police academy in Australia. [See  a short clip from “Scales of Justice”]

An example of good policing

 It was around the time that “Scales of Justice” went to air that an incident similar to that portrayed in the movie actually occurred at a new police station I had transferred to. A night crew had attended a burglary at a hi-fi warehouse and, upon returning to the police station the male police officer handed his female partner a box containing a piece of hi-fi equipment and told her to put it in her car, while he put his prize in his own car.

The female officer faced precisely the same dilemma as Simon Burke’s character faced in “Scales of Justice“, but the outcome was quite different. The Female officer had a quiet word with the night shift Sergeant and, the following day, detectives executed a search warrant on the male police officer’s home and recovered the hi-fi item (which I understand had been unpacked and set up for use in his home that same morning).

The buzz around the police station was almost totally in favour of the young female police officer. I say “almost” because some of the more senior police sympathised with the male officer, suggesting that his partner should have told him to put the items back, rather than “dob him in to the ‘toe-cutters‘ (the latter being the term officers used when referring to the Police Internal Investigations Department as it then was). However, the negative comments about the way the female officer had conducted herself failed to generate sympathy for her partner. Instead, it had the opposite effect; other police officers sought her out to support her and to confirm that she had done the right thing. After the experience I have described above, I marveled at how this rallying of officers around the female officer seemed to galvanise the whole of that police station’s crew, reinforcing a pride that was so lacking at my previous station.