Victorian Government under pressure to overhaul police complaints process

By Dr Meribah Rose, Dr Pascale Chifflet, Dr Laura Griffin and Gregor Husper | 05 Jul 24
Victorian police cars

Repeated inquiries have laid bare the failings of the current Victorian police accountability system and pointed to potential solutions, stressing the importance of genuine independence from police, and safety for complainants. Government has been too slow to act.

Police accountability is an ongoing problem across Australia, as shown by the acquittal of Zachary Rolfe, ongoing media coverage of shocking police misconduct, and exposure of the limited powers or impact of police watchdogs.

In Victoria, handling of complaints against police is shared by Victoria Police and the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC), with 97.5% of all complaints ultimately investigated by police themselves. Currently very few complaints are resolved in complainants’ favour and many are mishandled, as evidenced by IBAC’s 2022 audit of Victoria Police’s handling of complaints by Aboriginal people, and its 2024 review of investigations into police use of capsicum spray.

Public satisfaction with police has also fallen to an historic low, with the Victorian 2024-2025 Department Performance Statement reporting that community confidence in police and satisfaction with policing services have both fallen to 58% in the 2023-24 data – down from 75% and 73.1% the previous year. This notwithstanding the number of police per capita in Victoria outstripping any other Eastern state and the ACT. Whilst Victoria Police has attributed the lower figures to a change in data collection methodology, presumably this should have improved accuracy.

The drop in satisfaction follows a slew of recent inquiries and reviews, all of which have added mounting pressure on the Government to end the practice of Victoria Police investigating complaints against themselves – but no meaningful changes have been forthcoming. Legal assistance bodies are calling for a Victorian Police Ombudsman to replace the current system.

In 2018, a Parliamentary IBAC Committee inquiry into external oversight of police corruption and misconduct in Victoria recommended that “serious misconduct” complaints should be investigated by IBAC and not by Victoria Police.

Also in 2018, revelations of the “Lawyer X” scandal led the High Court to condemn Victoria Police’s “reprehensible” conduct, which “involved … atrocious breaches” of police officers’ sworn duties. This prompted a Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants, which handed down its report in 2020. The Commission found that police misconduct potentially affected more than 1,000 criminal convictions and “was apt to bring Victoria Police into disrepute and diminish public confidence in it”.

Meanwhile the Commission exhorted the Victorian government to initiate, within two years, a “review of institutional and legislative structures,” with a view to enhancing police accountability.

In 2021, the Victorian Government launched a systemic review of police oversight, which involved thorough consultations. But it is now more than two years since the review closed in February 2022, and the Government still has not announced any outcomes.

The following year, a Parliamentary Committee Inquiry into Victoria’s Criminal Justice System evidenced “the inadequate impartiality and effectiveness of the existing police complaint-handling and oversight systems in Victoria”. The inquiry also recommended that the Government consider the “possible establishment of a new independent body to investigate allegations of police misconduct and increase the accountability of Victoria Police.”

Adding to the pressure on the Government is the Yoorrook Justice Commission (Yoorrook) process of truth-telling into historical and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples in Victoria. After hearing of the significant harms caused by police misconduct to the community, Yoorrook asked Victoria Police’s Chief Commissioner Shane Patton if he believed police oversight would be strengthened by independent investigation. “I do now,” he responded.

In its Yoorrook for Justice report, released in 2023, Yoorrook highlighted Victoria Police’s role in systemic racism, decried the current system’s failure to provide effective accountability, and recommended the establishment of an entirely new independent police oversight body. In its April 2024 response, the Victorian Government indicated this recommendation was “under consideration”.

This reticence seems consistent with Victorian Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes’ evidence to Yoorrook the previous year, when she indicated that the Victorian Government was then considering reforms to the police oversight system only “within the confines of what –– the system that we have”. Reflecting this cautious stance, an April 2024 IBAC newsletter announced a limited pilot involving “a dedicated team to assess and investigate single incident complaints about police misconduct from community members at a higher risk of police misconduct occurring.” Even if this work continues, its impact would be limited in light of overall complaint numbers, current or potential.

While recent years have seen increasingly strong calls on Government to introduce an independent and client-centred police oversight body, Government has not responded with any clarity or transparency on how it plans to address these demands. The limited information made public suggests that the Government is either avoiding the issue or assuming that minor changes will suffice – ignoring calls for comprehensive reform.

The idea that police can investigate complaints about police has now lost all credibility, and the Victorian Government must respond to the clear need for an independent complaints body.