In the November state election, the Coalition ran heavily on a law-and-order ticket and was smashed, which may indicate people don’t see the criminal justice system as wickedly out of touch with the community.
We witnessed the best and worst of humanity in a few moments back in November, when a lone terrorist tried to turn his ute into a car bomb by igniting gas bottles in the rear. When that plan failed he attacked pedestrians, fatally wounding Sisto Malaspina, co-owner of the famous Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar.
Young uniformed transit police were there within one minute and instinctively ran towards the burning vehicle, only to be attacked. The offender was shot dead. You will note the name of the deceased knucklehead is not mentioned here. We believe terrorists should not be given the publicity they crave, for they are not martyrs but simply deluded meatballs.
The fact that Melbourne was back to normal within hours shows the aim of these sort of offenders – to cause a change in our way of life – fails. They die for nothing.
The sad reality is that terrorism is now an accepted threat. As part of that shift, our youngest police, those on the beat and in cars now referred to as ‘‘first responders’’, are being trained to take forceful, and if necessary, lethal action to deal with armed offenders. The days of trying to negotiate with terror suspects are over. In sieges involving terror suspects, more than 20 senior police are now authorised to order police snipers to kill at the first opportunity.
It is not so much “shoot first and ask questions later” as “ask the questions but shoot before you get the wrong answers”.
Around the same time as the Bourke Street attack we revisited the terrible events in the same street from January 20, 2017, when a man in a car being slowly pursued by police drove up Bourke Street Mall, killing six people and injuring 27.
In the Supreme Court we watched the CCTV footage of the carnage as people were mown down. We saw people run for shelter and then – like the tide returning – run back to help the wounded and distressed. Ordinary people showing extraordinary compassion.
With new federal encryption laws, Victoria Police next year will employ data scientists to mine message systems used by suspected terrorists.
For senior police, 2018 has been stained with controversy that will dominate the headlines.
First there is the case of Lawyer 3838, a gangland barrister who became a police informer. While her name is suppressed, the only creatures on the planet who don’t know her identity are Antarctic Emperor Penguins and that is only because the internet keeps dropping out down there due to snowstorms.
The Victorian government has announced a Royal Commission that will be headed by former Queensland Court of Appeal justice Margaret McMurdo and retired South Australian police commissioner Mal Hyde. The pair bring to the inquiry vast experience in the court process and practical knowledge of police work.
One of the questions they will need to answer is whether 3838 was acting as a barrister for her clients and simultaneously selling them out, or had veered so far away from the law that she was actually part of the underworld. In other words, was she a lawyer acting for gangsters or a gangster who happened to be a lawyer?
There have been suggestions her popularity with certain crooks was sexually-based. This is utter nonsense. They used her because she was available 24 hours a day and was prepared to advise them on criminal enterprises rather than just provide a textbook legal defence in a court.
The members of the Purana Taskforce who used her as a registered informer back in 2005 are adamant they did nothing wrong and that all their dealings with her are recorded and are above board. The external legal advice will be pivotal. If police were told using her as a registered informer was lawful, then it is play on. If they did not seek such advice, it points to a view that they knew what they were doing was perhaps over the edge.
Then decisions will have to be made on the ensuing appeals. If crims pleaded guilty because of a mountain of evidence, it could be a case of letting sleeping dogs lie. If they were railroaded, they may get new trials. So far the Office of Public Prosecutions has written to 20 prisoners and ex-inmates to tell them their cases should be reviewed. It is a fair bet there will be more.
What we do know is that it will be long and ugly. Perhaps it will also be a chance for the legal profession to reflect on its role in the affair. Many named and unnamed legal sources have expressed their outrage that police accepted information from a barrister that may have included client/lawyer confidential material, but none have reflected on how she got to such a position.
How is it that many of her peers who were concerned that she was running with her clients and was not acting professionally chose to do nothing? Why did they not go to the Bar with their concerns? As officers of the court, surely they had a duty to speak up.
In February the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission will hold hearings into what it describes as ‘‘alleged serious misconduct’’ in the investigation of the 1998 murders of Sergeant Gary Silk and Senior Constable Rod Miller. This has the potential to eat at the very fabric of the police culture in this state.
In 2018 the issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst serving and former police has been highlighted. An internal survey of sworn and unsworn force staff found that around 1700 have been diagnosed with depression and around 340 have admitted to suicidal thoughts in the previous year. One police officer takes his or her own life every 32 weeks in Victoria, and the figures involving retired officers are worse.
Which brings us to Ron Fenton, a former policeman who has suffered terribly both physically and mentally after being shot on duty. Ron was destined to be one of those statistics until he met his best friend Yogi the trauma dog, a loveable Labrador trained by an inmate at Bathurst Prison.
‘‘I doubt I would be here if it wasn’t for Yogi. I’d be under the ground. He is with me 24/7,’’ says Ron.
Most of what we do as journalists doesn’t matter that much; we rarely alter opinions and certainly don’t break governments, because no one changes their vote on the basis of an editorial. Some of it is called clickbait in the new world and fish-and-chip wrappers in the old.
Then sometimes, just sometimes, the wheels do gain traction.
A couple of weeks ago I received this message:
We’ve never met. But I’d like to thank you for saving my life one night.
In October 2014, at the age of 27, I was struggling not to turn my own gun on myself at work as the result of a serious incident that occurred earlier that year and left me scarred both physically and mentally. I didn’t know what to do and thought I had the options of suicide and ending my career.
Alone in a police station on a Sunday evening with an incredibly itchy trigger finger, I turned to Google out of desperation. What I found there were articles that you had written. Articles about police members who had gotten help and gotten better.
Those articles encouraged me to speak up and get the help that I needed. Your articles extended my career for another few years before it all became too much again. But your articles most certainly saved my life, and have encouraged me to be as open as possible about my struggles with PTSD so that future police members don’t have to rely on Google.
Thank you again, from the bottom of my heart.”
He has now left policing, is caring for his young children and looking forward to a long and productive life.
And so this Christmas reach out – reach out to someone. It may make all the difference.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.