Paynter case still a puzzle

by Chris Griffith
Written 20 March 1996


my face


In a few weeks, Deputy Police Commissioner Bill Aldrich will decide whether to sack or otherwise discipline the six police officers involved in the notorious Pinkenba incident.

In May, 1994, the officers drove three Aboriginal children in three police cars from Fortitude Valley to a remote location at Pinkenba where they allegedly terrorised the children until 4 am. The police action also left the Fortitude Valley area all but unstaffed.

Last February Magistrate Robert Quinlan ruled there was insufficient evidence to try the six for deprivation of liberty, but the CJC has asked Police Commissioner Jim O'Sullivan to begin disciplinary proceedings against the officers and their supervisors.

While speculation continues about the sanctions, the Police Service elsewhere has been waging a three-year battle to keep the administration of its internal disciplinary processes away from public scrutiny.

This battle has centred around another controversial incident -- the 1991 police assault of 17-year-old Adelaide teenager Michael Paynter in the Brisbane Juvenile Aid Bureau.

In late 1991, Paynter and a mate travelled on a whim to Queensland looking for fruit picking work. But they had little money.

After just two days in Brisbane, Paynter phoned his mother for help. She told him to contact the police for assistance to return home.

Paynter took her advice and approached the Juvenile Aide Bureau at Brisbane's Police Headquarters.

But instead of receiving help, the diminutive 155 cm youth had an argument with an officer that went too far. Paynter said the officer grabbed him by the front collar and lifted him up, released him, and then vigorously punched him in the chest. In all, Paynter was assaulted twice and a female police officer had to calm the man down.

The man also warned the female officer not to report the assault to the CJC.

But she did report it.

It is worth noting the police kept the Paynter case out of the media for 14 months. When first approached about the assault, the police media unit said the incident was a minor mishap, a verbal exchange and not an assault. Police said the officer involved had been given "a stern talking to".

For a year, the then CJC chairman, Rob O'Regan QC, was also unaware of the relatively light disciplinary sanction given to the man - despite having referred the case to the police for disciplinary action with a recommendation for dismissal.

Now the detailed story of how police handled this affair is being pieced together, because of a freedom of information (FOI) request lodged in January 1993 and now under review by Queensland's Information Commission -- over three years later.

Not surprisingly, police are adamant the details of this and all disciplinary cases must remain confidential.

Chief Superintendent Doug Smith, who has argued the police case before the commission, said: "I cannot accept that having lay people who are alien to a particular case being given access to the papers of the case will in some way add to the accountability of the disciplinary process.

"One of the functions of the Complaints Section of the Criminal Justice Commission is to provide the function of overviewing and supervising the internal discipline process.

"Lay people with no such experience could, and, in my opinion, would, have difficulty coming to a decision on quantum of discipline because of their disparate social and ethical backgrounds."

Despite this, a detailed chronology of this disciplinary case has emerged publicly.

The administration of this disciplinary case involved three men who have since lead state police forces -- Mr O'Sullivan, Neil Comrie, now Victoria's Chief Commissioner of Police, and David Blizzard, who acted as Queensland Police Commissioner when regular commissioner Noel Newnham stood aside during the Chesterman Inquiry. Mr Blizzard is now a Commander in the Australian Federal Police.

The case also highlighted the different views on disciplinary sanctions between Mr Blizzard, reputedly a tough disciplinarian, and Mr O'Sullivan.

And there was a claim that the Queensland Police Union played its role in lobbying against the officer's sacking.

So how was this case dealt with after the female officer lodged a complaint -- as she is required to by law?

First, the CJC conducted an investigation and established what it regarded as a prima facie case of assault. But the CJC said "neither criminal charges nor a charge of official misconduct could be substantiated" because the youth was too frightened to return to Brisbane to give evidence.

Therefore, on January 7, 1992, commission complaints' officer David Bevan wrote to Mr Blizzard asking the police to discipline the officer internally.

"The commission is of the view that a prima facie case substantiating the complaint exists," he said. "The Commission is of the view that the matter is sufficiently serious to warrant the dismissal of the officer".

Mr Bevan's letter to Mr Blizzard was forwarded to Superintendent John Banham, the head of the police service's Professional Standards Unit.

It then meandered its way through the police bureaucracy via Mr Comrie to Mr Blizzard.

"As I am not in a position to impose such a sanction, I recommend that this matter be dealt with by a Deputy Commissioner," Comrie wrote.

Three weeks after the letter arrived, on January 27, 1992, Blizzard referred the case back to the Professional Standards Unit to initiate disciplinary proceedings on his behalf -- believing he would convene a disciplinary hearing shortly afterwards.

But to his surprise, Blizzard, who had conducted 16 of the 17 preceding disciplinary hearings, saw nothing of the case again -- nor was he consulted about proceedings.

Around this time, it is understood a Police Union representative approached Blizzard and asked him what penalty he would impose, and whether he would sack the officer. Blizzard's view of the tough disciplinary action needed in these cases was no secret.

Then something like divine providence intervened.

On March 9, 1992, Police Commissioner Noel Newnham stood aside to fight allegations he had failed to repay the police service a $2102 airfare to attend an Interpol conference in Canada.

The subsequent administrative reshuffle saw Blizzard elevated to acting police commissioner, and O'Sullivan as the only officer empowered to hear serious disciplinary matters.

The next day, on March 10, the Professional Standards Unit -- which had the case on hold for six weeks since Blizzard's referral -- arranged a hearing before O'Sullivan for the following week. The Paynter matter was one of three cases he heard.

The rest is history.

O'Sullivan imposed a 200-hour community service penalty and removed the officer from the Juvenile Aid Bureau. He neither demoted nor dismissed the officer -- an outcome which later would enrage the CJC which had recommended dismissal.

In imposing a lighter sentence, Mr O'Sullivan said he had considered "all the relevant circumstances, including the officer's previous record."

Fourteen months then passed. The matter was forgotten.

Then in January 1993, the case hit the headlines.

The CJC, which like the public knew nothing about the lightly-regarded sanction, vented its outrage.

Mr O'Regan said he was concerned at the signal Mr O'Sullivan's penalty would send to police. He said the CJC's hands were tied as it could not review a penalty "after a matter has been dealt with by the police service".

"I discussed the matter with the [Police] Commissioner late last week and put it to him that it was important that the public did not get the impression that he is soft on police who misbehave."

He said the commission had directed Mr O'Sullivan's attention "to the option of dismissal as an appropriate sanction".

O'Regan also rejected the Police Union's claim that the CJC's investigation of the police officer had been "merciless and ruthless".

As a result, the police and the CJC now have an agreement which lets former Supreme Court Judge Bill Carter QC "independently audit the adequacy of disciplinary sanctions in the QPS that are referred to him by the Commission or the QPS".

Nonetheless, police are still fighting against public scrutiny of even the bare-bones administration of their disciplinary processes in an embarrassing episode.

In Paynter's case, they may have succeeded in keeping the matter under wraps -- for a time. But the operation of the police bureaucracy in this case has been fascinating, to say the least.

However if Pinkenba is any guide, police discipline is about to become anything but a private affair -- despite the Police Service's attempts for it to be otherwise

                      Table 1
      Who conducted police disciplinary hearings?
       Hearings from 1st Jan 1991 to 30 Jun 1992

                Date          Officer

                11 Mar 91     Blizzard
                23 Apr 91     Blizzard
                25 Apr 91     Blizzard
                26 Apr 91     Blizzard
                03 May 91     Blizzard
                03 May 91     Blizzard
                09 May 91     Blizzard
                09 May 91     Blizzard
                09 May 91     Blizzard
                27 May 91     Blizzard
                14 Jun 91     O'Gorman (Frank)
                25 Jul 91     Blizzard
                09 Sep 91     Blizzard
                31 Oct 91     Blizzard
                09 Dec 91     Blizzard
                              TO ORGANISE HEARING ON PAYNTER CASE
                13 Feb 92     Blizzard
                25 Feb 92     Blizzard
                10 Mat 92  .. NOTICE OF HEARING ON PAYNTER CASE SERVED
                17 Mar 92     O'Sullivan
                18 Mar 92     O'Sullivan
                19 Mar 92     O'Sullivan (Paynter case)