Reporting wrongdoing in the workplace: problems for police

Australia Victoria
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This report examines the application of the current legislative and policy framework for police reporting police wrongdoing. The topic is of particular importance to police because they – unlike any other public sector employees in Victoria – are compelled by legislation to report serious misconduct by their colleagues.

The legislative framework for police reporting police wrongdoing is made up of certain sections of the Police Regulation Act 1958, the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2001 and the Police Integrity Act 2008. The historical origins of the framework indicate that it was intended to protect individuals who report wrongdoing and to facilitate organisational improvement by uncovering and remedying workplace problems.

Provisions to protect police who report their colleagues’ wrongdoing were established on the basis that there is a risk of reprisal for those who report. That risk is not unique to police. However, various inquiries into police corruption in past decades, both in Australia and elsewhere, have identified a culture of misguided solidarity among police. This has given the risk of reprisal particular relevance to police.

The framework for police reporting wrongdoing in the workplace is complex and confusing. Victoria Police has had difficulty classifying wrongdoing under differing legislative definitions. This has affected the quality and consistency of its responses to wrongdoing. It has also resulted in inconsistent outcomes for those who report, in terms of the protections they receive and their perceptions of the organisation’s response to what they reported. It is timely to examine the problems faced by police under the present framework while Victoria’s anti-corruption landscape is undergoing reform.

Leaving aside difficulties with the current legislative framework, representatives of Victoria Police say the negative culture that denigrates police who report wrongdoing in the workplace has reduced over time. OPI investigations indicate a significant proportion of police are prepared to speak up when workplace wrongdoing occurs, suggesting that some very negative perceptions of police culture might be unfair or outdated. Despite this, OPI investigations suggest there is still a significant proportion of police who are unlikely to speak up about wrongdoing.

The legislated protections against retaliation do not address the root cause of reprisal – a workplace culture of misguided loyalty. The protections are individualistic and short-term, tending to ‘look after’ victims and potential victims of reprisal rather than address why reprisal occurs in the first place.

Such an approach to reprisal can inhibit organisational improvement in response to wrongdoing, which undermines the value of reporting it at all. If Victoria Police does not or cannot make improvements in response to reports of wrongdoing then the process of reporting provides little value.

OPI does not recommend withdrawing either the requirement for police to report wrongdoing in the workplace or the formal protections against reprisal. So long as reprisal does occur, Victoria Police should apply sanctions for retaliation to the full extent of the law. But formal compulsions and protections are no substitute for a culture that actively supports speaking up against wrongdoing in the workplace.

The current framework is an improvement on a culture of silence where no one can or will speak up about wrongdoing. But individualistic and short-term protections are not the ultimate goal. Ideally, the Victoria Police workplace will be one in which individuals who speak up about wrongdoing are fully supported – then they will have no need of protection.

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