By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Victoria’s anti-corruption watchdog tabled a report before state parliament on Tuesday, finding that a number of Victorian police officers have been taking illegal drugs and, in some instances, even selling them.
The officers were found to have been regularly partying on cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine and ice.
The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) report sets out the findings of three investigations carried out by Operations Apsley, Hotham and Yarrowitch.
Officers in disrepute
The largest of the investigations, Operation Aspley, commenced in June 2015. It probed allegations that a police officer had been involved in the use, possession and supply of illegal drugs.
The investigation found significant evidence that six officers were regularly using illegal drugs, four of whom were selling them. Four of the officers ultimately tested positive to illicit substances in their system. Two of them were in direct interactions with convicted drug suppliers.
As a result of the investigation, one officer was dismissed and two resigned whilst under investigation. Another was admonished and allowed to stay on the force. Two are currently suspended, awaiting criminal proceedings.
The report’s recommendations
The IBAC identified a number of “systemic deficiencies” in Victoria police’s approach to preventing and detecting illegal drug use amongst officers.
It found that current drug testing procedures are inadequate, as only 5 percent of officers are tested per year. This means an officer is only likely to be randomly tested every 20 years.
The report recommended Victoria police undertake a comprehensive review of measures to prevent illicit drug use by police officers. The Victoria police chief commissioner is to provide the IBAC with a progress report by June 30 next year.
The three IBAC operations led to allegations being brought against eight officers, all of which have been substantiated.
Not the first time
This is certainly not the first time Victoria police has been criticised for failing to address illegal drug use within police ranks. The Herald Sun reported in October last year that the rate of drug testing had slumped in recent years, but the number of officers caught taking drugs is on the rise.
Of just 100 officers tested over a 40 month period, 18 tested positive, while eleven others had been caught in possession of illegal drugs, or had failed to account for seized substances.
In September of this year, an internal police investigation resulted in four officers being suspended for using illicit drugs and leaking information to criminals. This transpired amid claims that recreational drug use is on the rise amongst younger officers.
Earlier that same month, former police officer David Lister pleaded guilty to supplying ice and cannabis cultivation. He resigned from the force in February, after failing a drug test.
Hardly a shock
The secretary of the Victoria Police Association, Ron Iddles, denies there’s a systemic drug problem in the Victoria police force. However, he acknowledged that the findings of the IBAC report weren’t a “total shock.”
“Our members are susceptible to more pressure and stress than the average member of society,” Iddles said on Tuesday.
Drug use is indeed common amongst the general public. The National Drug Strategy Household survey 2013 found that 15 percent of the population had used an illicit drug in the past 12 months.
However, the difference between police officers and members of the general public is that police swear an oath to uphold and enforce the law. Indeed, taxpayers fork out billions of dollars per year to fund police forces across the nation – $3.4 billion a year in NSW alone. It is the job of police to detect, investigate and prosecute the very crimes that some officers are engaging in – which may be seen as hypocritical and affecting the integrity of the institution as a whole.
Police are allowed to exercise their extensive powers around the clock, whether or not they are on duty, and many see a problem with officers having the power to arrest people, use move on powers etc whilst they are using illegal drugs.
Drug use by police can compromise integrity
“Illicit drug use and police work are fundamentally incompatible,” IBAC commissioner Stephen O’Bryan said in a statement. He outlined that officers that use, possess or sell these substances “make themselves vulnerable to blackmail” and are at risk of engaging with organised criminals.
He added that police officers who commit drug offence are also vulnerable to coercion.
The costs of the punitive measures
The number of arrests for illicit drugs has increased by 70 percent Australia wide over the past decade. Over the year 2014-15, 133,926 illicit drug arrests took place, and the overwhelming majority were for cannabis.
The Australian government spends an estimated $1.7 billion on responding to illicit drugs every year, with policing comprising 64 percent of this. That’s over $1 billion spent on enforcing drug laws a year, and this doesn’t take into account the huge amount spent on imprisoning those who are sent to prison.
And yet figures released last year suggest that the drug trade in Victoria dramatically increased over the previous five years.
Police could focus on criminals with legitimate victims
It’s obvious that a lot of taxpayers’ money is being wasted on a failed approach to dealing with drugs. Not only that, a huge amount of police time is being wasted on searching and arresting people for personal possession – and most of those searches do not result in a drug find.
Damon Adams of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is a former South Australian police officer who’s calling for a legalised and regulated cannabis market. In his opinion, there are a lot of officers who agree with him.
Adams believes that an enormous amount of police time is being wasted on pursuing minor drug offences, when they could be proactively going “after criminals that actually have legitimate victims.” He’s pointed out that when officers seize cannabis plants, they spend a great deal of time transporting and cataloguing them, in addition to preparing statements and everything else that goes with a prosecution.
The case for decriminalisation
Last month, the Australian Greens announced a change in their drug policy that would see the decriminalisation of illicit drugs and the legalisation of some for recreational use. The party has formally acknowledged the obvious – that Australia’s punitive approach isn’t working.
An example of a non-punitive approach is Portugal. The Portuguese decriminalised the possession of all drugs fifteen years ago.
Citizens found in possession of a permissible amount of an illicit substance receive a citation or they’re sent to see a “dissuasion panel.” Those who repeatedly appear before these panels are prescribed treatment.
As a result of the policy change, drug use in Portugal has fallen dramatically and the country has saved billions in enforcement costs.