Civilian oversight of police in Australia


“Who will guard the guardians?” asked the Roman satirist Juvenalis. Historically, countries like Australia largely preferred to trust police to keep their house in order, with some external guardianship administered by the courts and government. This simple approach has now been found wanting, as numerous inquiries have demonstrated the vulnerability of policing to corruption and misconduct. While the large majority of officers are usually untouched by exposés of corruption, there can be little doubt that constant vigilance and strong measures are required to prevent misconduct becoming widespread and entrenched in police organisations. The issue is no longer one of whether or not the guards need guarding, but of determining the best form of guardianship. A diverse range of strategies and systems has emerged, with competing claims for their effectiveness. One favoured by inquiries is an external body – free from peer pressure and loyalty to police – tasked with investigating complaints and/or monitoring police investigations.

This paper reports on a survey of such bodies in Australia. The main purpose is not to identify a single preferred model, but to raise a set of critical issues about how these bodies should function. One issue concerns the division of labour between police and the oversight body. Others concern the creation of a specialist police body or the inclusion of police oversight within a broader public sector brief. Particular controversy surrounds proactive measures such as integrity testing and covert surveillance. More attention is also now being given to performance indicators in evaluating oversight bodies. This paper will stimulate greater awareness of options for police accountability, and facilitate the exchange of knowledge between stakeholders in pursuit of best practice in the creation and maintenance of police integrity.