Policing the police


The complex and often turbulent relationship between police commissioners and the governments in which they serve is the main focus of an upcoming public lecture hosted by Flinders University.

Criminal justice expert Professor Philip Stenning (pictured) from Queensland’s Griffith University lands in Adelaide this week to deliver the keynote speech – ‘Governance of the Police: Independence, Accountability and Interference’ – at the Ray Whitrod Memorial Lecture on Thursday, October 6.

The event, held at TAFE SA’s city campus, is named after former Queensland Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod, who resigned from the job in 1976 as a protest against government interference in policing.

Using examples from Australia and other common law countries, Professor Stenning will debate whether governments have a legitimate say in the undertakings of the police force or whether police commissioners should act independently and without restraint.

Professor Stenning will discuss a number of conflicts between police commissioners and their governments in Australia, including the 1970 South Australian public dispute between Labor Premier Don Dunstan and Police Commissioner John McKinna over how the police should have handled an anti-war protest planned for the streets of Adelaide, and that between Commissioner Harold Salisbury and the same government in 1978 over access to information concerning intelligence files.

“There have been numerous cases throughout history where governments have inappropriately interfered with policing yet we don’t seem any closer to resolving these issues,” Professor Stenning, based in Griffith’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said.

“So to what extent do governments have a legitimate right to direct police commissioners and where is the line between improper interference in policing and legitimate demands for accountability?

“I want to gauge how we view the parameters of these relationships and how we can avoid these types of conflicts.”

During the lecture, Professor Stenning will also discuss how police commissioners can be caught up in exploitation for political advantage, using the recent controversy leading to the resignation of former Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland as an example.

The case in question involved allegations, investigated by the Ombudsman, that Overland had allowed the release of incomplete crime statistics which made the former Labor-based Brumby government appear more favourable to voters right before a state election campaign fought heavily on law and order.

“Given the Overland case is happening now, I’m not just talking about history but something that reoccurs time and time again and remains a very topical issue.”

Professor Stenning started his career at the Centre of Criminology at Toronto University, Canada, in 1968 then moved on to become Professor and Director of the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, from 2003 to 2005. More recently, he worked as Professor of Criminology at Keele University in the UK before taking on the role at Griffith.

The Ray Whitrod Memorial Lecture will be held at TAFE SA’s Adelaide Campus, 120 Currie St, Room N210, on October 6, from 5.30pm to 7pm.

For more details click here.

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