You have the right to remain silent ... for now
Without the quick thinking of a stranger with a camera and gripping running commentary all while defying the police, we would not have heard of Jamie Jackson.
He is the young man who was charged with assaulting a Liverpool police officer after the Mardi Gras parade. Footage recorded by a passer by depicts a boyish-looking Jackson, 18, face down with an officer’s boot in his back, bleeding from the head and crying. You almost expect the next words out of his mouth to be “I want my mum”.
It’s a graphic picture of a power imbalance. But many more accused criminals may find themselves falling face first into an imbalanced criminal justice system should the top brass get their way.
In altogether more sinister power differential backed by Premier O’Farrell, Commissioner Scipione and union boss Scott Weber, they are seeking to alter the centuries old principle that the accused has a right of silence.
Any day now, the NSW Attorney General is going to declare his hand about where the government sits. Proposed changes were originally slated to be law last October but have been delayed in a consultation process.
In asking for these law changes, the O’Farrell government is asking us to trust his police to conduct themselves appropriately. They want the everyday man and woman to give up a right telling them that it is in the interest of catching hard core crooks.
Police Commissioner Scipione has gone public and said these laws are needed to break the “wall of silence”, which is the term used for criminals in gangland gun violence not cooperating with police investigations.
This is where it gets murky and where there is a solid argument that the people of NSW are being sold a lemon to play on their fears. Phillip Boulten SC, the head of the NSW Bar Association is on record as saying the Scipione is using “spin” and that the wall of silence “has nothing to do” with the right of silence laws. This has been backed up by the shadow attorney general and Greens MLC David Shoebridge.
Boulten and Shoebridge have pointed to plenty of existing criminal laws and also the powerful bodies like Australian Crime Commission and its state equivalent the NSW Crime Commission. Both bodies have powers to compel someone who is in organised crime to give evidence, even if this means they incriminate themselves.
Boulten calls the proposed altering of the right of silence laws “the most drastic change to criminal procedure in over a century”. Yet, despite being such a major change, when the inconsistencies about the law’s purpose were recently put to Scipione, including Boulten’s allegation that he was full of spin, the police commissioner apparently did not see it was necessary to respond. His office ignored repeated requests for an interview or to reply to written questions.
Without a response, a fair conclusion is that Scipione’s reasoning for why a change of law around the right of silence is needed, simply doesn’t stack up. Rather than deal head on with Boulten and Shoebride’s claims, NSW’s top cop went to ground.
Probably for good reason as the powerful Police Association has been seeking a change to these laws for over eight years, well before the wall of silence was an issue, supporting the charge that the wall of silence is nothing but clever spin doctoring from the Commissioner to tap into the fears of the community.
If the collective wisdom of the NSW government, the Police Commissioner and the Police Association is now everyday policing is too hard, and that too many accused have seen enough episodes of Law and Order, that they now instinctively know to shut the hell up, then these leaders should be honest about it.
By linking it to other factors, like “the wall of silence” or “surprise alibis”, their credibility and therefore their trustworthiness can be questioned, and if we don’t trust our police, who can we trust?
The state’s top cop seems to also not want to answer his critics, including the powerful and credible New South Wales Bar Association, who are saying he is being disingenuous. This sends a message to those down the command structure that you don’t need to be accountable.
It is the transparency, or more specifically the lack of it which is so confronting. How many police tell quick thinking onlookers to switch off the i-Phones and they comply obediently destroying accountability in the process? How many police stand in the way of public scrutiny? How many police use brute force on those that are handcuffed?
Laws are there in part to protect the citizenry from an abuse of power. Today, the bubbling angry sentiment will take the form of a protest starting in Taylor Square where over 2000 signed up to attend. The protest is against the perception that NSW police are misusing their powers. All is not well between the citizens and the force.
Yet, this is around the same time that Premier O’Farrell may ask for the citizens to forgo rights as a leap of faith while not explaining the real reason for this change. Premier O’Farrell and his Police Commissioner need to come clean as to why they really want the laws changed, to do anything less will erode the trust of the citizens.
No wonder people are ready to hit the streets in anger.
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