SMH: Toxic force: police claim bosses use complaints to target them

NSW police officers claim they are being forced out of their careers by their bosses’ misuse of the internal complaints system that is fostering a culture of bullying and harassment.

Herald investigation can reveal serving and former police officers from commands in Sydney and across NSW claim there is a culture of bullying, racism and targeted discrimination by dysfunctional management. Officers described one regional command as being like an episode from the reality TV show Survivor.

One NSW lawyer, who has represented more than 70 police officers, said bullying was endemic in the force, with ”pockets of toxic culture” and nepotism across the state’s police commands.

Hundreds of complaints are made by police against their colleagues every year with a policy of mandatory reporting for misconduct. Generally, complaints are handled within the Local Area Command or police district. Serving and former officers have told the Herald that this system leads to collusion and “stitch-ups” of colleagues.

Complaints can be appealed or sent to the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), an independent body that oversees the NSW Police Force.

LECC conducted 57 “full investigations” in 2019-20 after receiving 3452 complaints from either the public or police, nearly 1000 more complaints than the previous year.

Serving and former police officers from multiple commands across NSW including Richmond, Manning-Great Lakes, the Riverina, Coffs Harbour, the Blue Mountains and the Highway Patrol told the Herald that internal complaints were often misused to bully or harass officers and enabled nepotism.

On Tuesday, LECC reported that NSW Police did not have “processes to identify complaint clusters” after investigating an unidentified commander whose “harassment, bullying and victimisation” of officers was allowed to continue for several years.

LECC heard evidence that “commanders over the years who were regarded as bullies were promoted rather than dealt with”.

The Herald can reveal that the Riverina Police District, around Wagga Wagga, has been described by officers as more like the TV show Survivor than the classic Law and Order series many people imagine police work would involve.

Retired Inspector Wayne McLachlan spent 24 years in the force and transferred to Wagga in 2004 where he served for 10 years. He was also a local police association representative up until 2019, supporting police who were the subject of complaints.

“I believe I know at least 12 people who left the force as a direct result of the bullying at Wagga,” Mr McLachlan said.

“The movement of staff from Wagga at all levels, transfers, resignations and sick leave reflects the grief being caused.”

Three Wagga senior constables, Mick Connor, Richard Moffatt and Brayden Sharrock, were all acquitted by a court due to a lack of evidence after charges were brought against them by their own command.

“In one court matter two officers admitted to lying in court,” Mr McLachlan said. “I believe that at least one of these officers was pressured to provide false evidence.”

One of the cases was brought against a senior constable because he wrote a letter to avoid a parking ticket.

At the same time as minor complaints were being filed and investigated, high rates of sick leave at Wagga Wagga meant officers from surrounding stations had to cover for them. That left towns like Temora, Lockhart and Junee understaffed, with residents having to wait days before police could see them, sources from the area told the Herald.

Former detective sergeant Malinda McLachlan said she was targeted by Riverina Police District Commander David (Bob) Noble because she was supporting people that had “legitimate” complaints about how they were being treated.

“It got turned back on me and I was the problem,” said Ms McLachlan, who worked at Wagga Wagga between 2013 and 2017.

“Wayne [McLachlan] and I stood up for the cops who couldn’t stand up for themselves when we were in the force and we’re speaking up now because the cops who remain in the force are scared and prevented by police policy to speak to the media.”

Ms McLachlan joined the force in 2001 and worked at stations in the Blue Mountains and St Marys, was an undercover officer and held numerous roles in internal affairs.

Some station inspectors would spend a vast amount of time investigating other police who had fallen out of favour with management in Wagga, she said.

“They dedicated 15 or 20 hours a week to just picking stuff to investigate,” said Ms McLachlan, who conducted some investigations.

“If you weren’t compliant and a ‘yes’ man, you were targeted with complaints and generally pushed to the point where you didn’t want to be there anymore.”

Sydney’s Rafaat Alameddine graduated from the Police Academy at the age of 19 and was stationed at Wagga Wagga in 2012.

“It was the only job I ever wanted to do. It was my dream career and it was a big wake-up call to see how it actually was inside,” Mr Alameddine said.

“With that clique up there real complaints will just go nowhere, you’ve got Buckley’s.”

Racist remarks were “common” in the station but some officers stood up to them, Mr Alameddine said.

“From 2012 to 2016 ISIS [the extremist group Islamic State] was huge, so I was ISIS in Wagga Wagga,” he said. “I’d walk into a room and people would be like ‘shh, shh the Muslim’s here’ and I’d crack up laughing but it’s not funny. I can take a joke but every single shift I’d cop it.”

Mr Alameddine was meant to get his stripes and become a constable after his probation period was completed but he wasn’t confirmed partly because of an unresolved complaint. He left the force in 2016.

“I had to take it on the chin for something that I had not done, they could not prove it beyond a reasonable doubt so they tried me internally,” he said. “It still bothers me.”

Internal complaints only have to be proven on the balance of probabilities, which can mean that if you were there you probably did it.

The complaint that was upheld against Mr Alameddine involved Shane Pedler, a general duties officer in Wagga from 2004 to 2019 who was also investigated for numerous other complaints including calling someone “Old Mate”.

Mr Pedler and Mr Alameddine were accused of lying in their statements and colluding over the alleged assault of a teenager in custody in the Wagga station’s charge room.

The teenager later wrote a letter of apology to Mr Pedler, which the Herald has seen, saying his behaviour (spitting in the officer’s face) prompted the incident and he was “dismayed” that Mr Pedler was suspended from duty over it.

The complaint was sustained after an internal investigation that lasted more than two years but no charges were laid.

“The complaint system is easily manipulated and I believe Commander Noble used it on numerous occasions to target experienced police he didn’t like,” Mr Pedler said.

“It was non-stop little crap. Half of it would not have been recorded. I was getting hauled upstairs for stuff and two days later I’m told ‘oh no it wasn’t an official complaint we just needed to talk to you about it’.”

NSW Police declined to comment on the allegations, issuing a statement saying the force “promotes a safe and respectful workplace”.

Responding to the LECC investigation, NSW Police said it had implemented a new workplace misconduct model which adds “flexibility” with a “focus on prevention and early intervention”, to how complaints are resolved.

Chris Clarke from Stacks Law Firm said “pockets of toxic culture” and nepotism exist across the state’s police commands.

“Under the promotional structure people are rewarded for their sycophancy to supervisors who are then rewarded, not for their competence in the job but their allegiance to the senior officer,” said Mr Clarke, who has represented about 70 NSW police officers.

“The number of cases that I’m seeing shows that it (bullying) is at endemic proportions as cases for stress have exploded.”

Officers from Sydney and regional commands told the Herald they were forced to work extra hours for no overtime just to defend themselves against complaints.

“Experienced police are being broken by this corrupt system, they see the bullying and harassment, they see the nepotism and there is nothing they can do,” one officer told the Herald.

When a complaint ends up in court the defence costs may fall to the officer. Even if they win the case or it is withdrawn, they can be stuck paying thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Last month Sarah Morgan, a police officer since 2013, lost her appeal in the Supreme Court to recoup the legal costs she incurred fighting a case that was withdrawn on the day it was due to be heard in court.

She was charged in 2018 for recording conversations with her superiors at the police prosecution’s command. She said she made the recordings as she felt bullied and her workplace was unsafe.

An independent review of the original complaint against her found the investigation to be “inadequate”. A review of other investigations involving Ms Morgan found “a number” of sustained complaint findings had to be overturned.

She was reinstated to the force in August 2020 but was ordered to pay her own legal costs and the costs of the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) who fought her appeal for costs in the Supreme Court.

Her lawyer Paul McGirr, a former police officer, said once the police “choose their horse, they will flog that horse no matter how bad their case is”.

“The (NSW Police) director of legal services in Sarah Morgan’s matter actually put in writing ‘I don’t know why this matter is going to court’,” Mr McGirr said.

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