Research reports

Victoria Police handling of complaints made by Aboriginal people

Police misconduct and the investigation of complaints against police are issues that concern all Victorians. However, they have particular significance for Aboriginal people, who come into contact with police at a much higher rate than non-Aboriginal people.

Despite this, Aboriginal people make very few complaints about police. Aboriginal community organisations have highlighted a lack of confidence in the police complaints system, driven by concerns about inherent bias in the investigation process, lack of adequate evidence gathering, poor communication with complainants and low substantiation rates.

The system of police oversight in Victoria has in recent years been the subject of considerable discussion, criticism and recommendations for reform. Many in the community are concerned by the fact that most complaints about police are investigated by Victoria Police rather than by an independent body. The Victorian Government is currently conducting a systemic review of the system of police oversight in Victoria.

Against this backdrop, and as part of its oversight responsibilities, IBAC examined Victoria Police's handling of 41 complaints made by Aboriginal people and its oversight of 13 serious incidents involving an Aboriginal person.

As IBAC undertook this audit within the current system of police oversight in Victoria, our recommendations do not address wider community concerns about the overall structure of the Victorian police complaints system.

Nevertheless, this audit sheds new light on Victoria Police's handling of complaints by Aboriginal people and identifies concerning patterns in current processes. This report outlines IBAC's findings and makes recommendations to improve Victoria Police processes.

  • Hi, I'm Kylie Kilgour. I'm a Deputy Commissioner here at IBAC.

    And I'm Alistair McCulloch, Manager of IBAC's Prevention Policy and Research team.

    Today, we'll be talking about a piece of work IBAC recently undertook looking at how Victoria Police handles complaints made by Aboriginal people. This was undertaken as part of IBAC's important work oversighting Victoria Police.

    Kylie, can you give us a bit of a summary of IBAC's police oversight work?

    Well, we have a very busy police jurisdiction here in Victoria. We receive many thousands of complaints every year about Victoria Police. In fact, they're our number one public sector body in terms of the number of complaints that we receive.

    What we can do with those complaints is we can investigate some of them but we really only investigate the most serious and systemic matters that are brought to our attention. For about 40% of the matters that we receive, we refer them back to Victoria Police for them to investigate themselves; and then there's a a section of complaints that we receive where we dismiss them because they don't meet our threshold.

    But turning particularly to the matters that we do refer to Victoria Police, a really important way that we oversight Victoria Police's conduct (of their part of the police oversight system) is we do research reports like the one we're going to talk about today. Where we do a deep dive, basically, into how Victoria Police have managed complaints that have been referred to them for investigation to really make sure that those complaints have been handled appropriately.

    And a piece of work like this allows us to look at a large number of complaints and identify themes issues, trends and ways that Victoria Police can do better in terms of how they handle complaints made in future.

    Yeah, it's a really effective tool for us to really get a good body of evidence to be able to reflect back to Victoria Police about at a system level how well are they performing their part of the police oversight system.

    How Victoria Police handles complaints made by Aboriginal people is an area we've heard a lot of anecdotal complaints about and concerns about before isn't it?

    Yes, absolutely. And so by about 2018, IBAC had had a number of issues raised with it by community about how Victoria Police were handling complaints that they were making.

    So things like how people's indigenous status is or isn't accurately recorded in police information systems, that's been a long-standing issue in the justice system more broadly but in the context of police complaints, of course, it's very important Victoria Police record if an indigenous person has brought a complaint about their treatment by Victoria Police.

    Things like conflicts of interest, so allegations that you know officers who worked closely together were investigating each other.

    Things like use of force complaints always being unsubstantiated, so always the police officer's account of their use of force being preferred over the Aboriginal community member's account of how use of force may or may not have been appropriately used against them.

    Things like children and young people's treatment when they make complaints not being taken very seriously not even being interviewed as part of a complaint investigation.

    So all of those sorts of concerns had been flagged with IBAC and they triggered us to do an audit where we've taken about 50 complaints and notifications that were being managed by Victoria Police and we've really done a deep dive into how each of those investigations have been conducted and made a range of findings about serious shortcomings at a system level that we can identify about how Victoria Police have approached handling those complaints by Aboriginal people.

    Because if people don't trust the complaint system they're just not going to make complaints about Victoria Police and that then there's no way to hold police officers to account when they do do the wrong thing.

    Yeah, absolutely. It's really important that community, all community but especially Aboriginal people, have confidence that if they need to make a complaint about their treatment by Victoria Police that those complaints will be taken seriously, both by IBAC but also by Victoria Police.

    So what did the audit find?

    Unfortunately we did find that there are still issues about people's indigenous status isn't accurately recorded.

    We did find instances of conflicts of interest occurring, so investigations being conducted by people who really should have stepped out and said someone else would be a more independent investigator of this complaint.

    A lack of engagement with complainants, that's a real concern of mine. If someone's taken the trouble to make a complaint, a Victoria Police investigator should at least speak to that person because they will have important information and perspective to give about their experience.

    Things like children and young people not necessarily being taken seriously when they have made their complaints. In some instances as well, children and young people being roughly handled whilst in custody. Not having parents or guardians present with them when they are being interviewed, which you know these are just unlawful.

    So yeah, there's a whole bunch of issues that we've been able to surface through this audit report.

    And also a really low substantiation rate. So, despite use of force being the most complained about issue from Aboriginal people, none of those complaints are actually substantiated when Victoria Police investigated. That doesn't foster trust in the system.

    No, and particularly a lot of those files I noted were files where complainants were not spoken to. So how how could you really judge whether the use of force was appropriate or not if you haven't spoken to the person?

    So what we've done in response to those findings is make 10 recommendations to Victoria Police firstly to urgently reform its complaint system to make it simpler and clearer for complainants.

    We've also recommended that Victoria Police establish a dedicated complaints process for Aboriginal people to make sure those complaints are handled in a culturally appropriate way and a timely way.

    As you've touched on we've made recommendations to Victoria Police about how it treats Aboriginal young people and children in custody, and when those children and young people are being interviewed or arrested.

    And we've also made recommendations to Victoria Police about ongoing issues around conflicts of interest and human rights, which have been long-standing areas concerned for IBAC.

    Yes and it was really pleasing to see that Victoria Police have accepted all 10 of those recommendations and work is currently underway at their end to implement those recommendations. So we'll be working very closely with them on their implementation plan, making sure that they've got clear timeframes by which we can expect to see the changes that we've recommended. We'll be publishing copies of Victoria police's response on our website we'll continue to Monitor and continue to provide updates on our website about their implementation of these recommendations.

    And this piece of work is also really important for IBAC, so we'll be looking at the findings and the recommendations to see how we can improve our own processes and support Aboriginal people who might make complaints to IBAC about Victoria Police.

    Yes and we'll be out and about in community over the next you know six to 12 months talking about this audit report and really encouraging members of the Victorian Aboriginal community to let us know about any further concerns that anyone has about their treatment by Victoria Police.

  • IBAC publishes responses to our investigations and research reports to inform the community about actions agencies advise they are taking and to assist Victoria Police and the public sector to strengthen policies, systems and practices to prevent corruption and misconduct.

    In June 2023, Victoria Police provided IBAC with a progress report in response to IBAC’s ten recommendations, arising from the audit report, Victoria Police handling of complaints made by Aboriginal people, published in May 2022.

    IBAC has assessed that Recommendation 1 is implemented and closed. IBAC is seeking further information and clarification on Victoria Police’s response to Recommendations 2 to 10.

    IBAC has requested that Victoria Police provide a further response by 1 December 2023.

    Recommendation 1

    That Victoria Police urgently implements systemic reform of its approach to complaint handling to simplify the system of file classifications, determinations, and recommendations to help ensure clarity for complainants, investigators, and subject officers, and to ensure that complaints made by Aboriginal people receive a classification that reflects the seriousness of the alleged misconduct.

    On 1 July 2022 Victoria Police introduced a simplified complaint classification system, which has substantial changes, including:

    • Replacing 11 complaint categories with 3 categories
    • A reduction in classification themes reduced from 2000 unique descriptors to 500 types
    • Replacing 17 determinations for allegations with 5 determinations.

    A new External Complaint Form was also introduced on 1 July 2022, it includes the Standard Indigenous Question to identify Aboriginal people at the earliest opportunity. A complaint identified as being from an Aboriginal person is prioritised for triage and assessment. Victoria Police classifies complaints according to the misconduct alleged in the complaint, and not the demographics of the complainant. 

    To ensure the seriousness of an allegation is appropriately categorised, the complaint is required to be classified against the highest or most serious form of misconduct. Complaints made by complainants who identify as Aboriginal people will be triaged to receive contact from a PSC Police Aboriginal Liaison Officer (PALO), but this will not alter the classification of the complaint.

    Recommendation 2

    That Victoria Police develops and implements specific training for Victoria Police employees on the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and its application to Aboriginal people who come into contact with police, to ensure genuine understanding of and engagement with human rights in operational policing, complaint investigations and serious incident oversights. This training should be developed in partnership with relevant Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and include the historical context and legacy of Aboriginal people’s experiences with police, the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the recommendation of the coroner in the inquest into the death of Tanya Day and the impact of cultural stereotypes and unconscious bias on police decision making.

    Victoria Police commenced implementation of Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Training (ACAT) in 2022. This training was developed in conjunction with registered Aboriginal training provider, and the training package was endorsed by the Aboriginal Justice Caucus.

    The training includes information on the historical context and legacy of Aboriginal peoples experiences with police, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and unconscious bias. The training was mandated for all police and protective services officers in 2022 and extended to police custody officers in 2023. As of 18 May 2023, approximately 6700 employees have completed the training. 

    Victoria Police has implemented three training packages to ensure employees understand human rights obligations including: 

    • The Human Rights in Everyday Policing e-Learn has been completed by approximately13,000 employees.
    • Designated human rights content is included in Foundation Training (for police recruits) as well as promotional programs including the Senior Sergeants Development Program and Inspectors Development Program. 
    • Tailored human rights training is delivered by Legal Services Department to uplift capability in targeted business areas including Professional Standards Command. 

    VEOHRC was commissioned and undertook a review and has provided a draft report to Victoria Police, in line with Recommendation 7 of the Tanya Day inquest. Further discussion is currently being undertaken to finalise the report. 

    Victoria Police is conducting a training needs analysis to determine the best approach to acquit Recommendation 7 of the Tanya Day inquest finding and recommendation 8.1 from the Veronica Nelson inquest finding and equip all members to better operationalise the Human Rights Charter. 

    Victoria Police has recently released a tender for the ethical training uplift of all operational Sergeants (approximately 3000) that addresses the impact of cultural stereotypes and unconscious bias on police decision making. 

    Recommendation 4

    That Victoria Police takes action to address serious and ongoing issues with behaviours that might conceal misconduct within Victoria Police, including by reviewing and strengthening training and guidance for complaint investigators in relation to: 
    a) managing conflicts of interest 
    b) considering subject officer complaint histories 
    c) gathering evidence 
    d) complying with record keeping requirements. 

    Victoria Police delivers a training course for employees in relation to the conduct of complaint investigations. This course, the Integrity Management Program was significantly updated in August 2021 and covers managing conflicts of interest, gathering evidence and good practice record-keeping. 

    The VPM Conflict of Interest (COI) was released on 11 August 2022 along with a Practice Guide to support Victoria Police employee’s decision making.

    This policy strengthened the expectation placed on Police employees with respect to declaring, managing, and reviewing conflicts of interest. 

    The prior complaint history of subject employees in a new complaint are added to the complaint file for the information of complaint investigators. 

    Recommendation 5

    That Victoria Police establishes a dedicated process for handling complaints made by Aboriginal people to enable timely and culturally appropriate complaint handling, including the creation of a specialised role to advise on classification and investigation of complaints from Aboriginal people, and to link Aboriginal complainants with available services to support them during the complaints process. This specialised role would benefit from being staffed by Aboriginal prioritised or designated positions and should be developed in partnership with relevant Aboriginal community-controlled organisations. 

    Victoria Police acknowledges IBAC’s recommendation to create a specialised role within PSC and staffed by Aboriginal prioritised or designated positions. Victoria Police is currently considering funding for such a position and proposed functions of the role. 

    PSC has established Police Aboriginal Liaison Officers (PALO) across the Command who engage with Aboriginal complainants, as an adjunct to their usual duties. On receipt of a complaint involving an Aboriginal person, the compliant is triaged for specific advice and engagement by a PSC PALO. The PSC PALO will explain the complaint process to the Aboriginal complainant, identify local connections for the complainant for support, and be recorded as a resource for the assigned investigator. The PSC PALO will record interactions and advice provided into the relevant Interpose shell. 
    PSC has ensured that all EPSOs have attended ACAT. 

    Recommendation 6

    That Victoria Police ensures that officers investigating complaints or overseeing serious incidents involving Aboriginal people seek advice from the new specialised role (see recommendation 5) at the commencement of the investigation or oversight, and document that advice on the file. 

    As outlined at Recommendation 5, PSC has established a PSC PALO network to assist with culturally appropriate responses to Aboriginal complainants. Complaints involving Aboriginal complainants are reviewed by a PALO prior to allocation to an investigator, with all interaction(s) between the PSC PALO and the complainant or investigator recorded in Interpose. Region based ACLO’s or PALO’s are also available for assistance. 

    Recommendation 7

    That Victoria Police strengthens its complaint-handling processes and training to ensure that investigators keep complainants regularly updated on the progress of an investigation, and provide detailed, accurate, clear, and consistent outcome information to complainants and their nominated representatives.

    Victoria Police is currently finalising updated Victoria Police Manual policies relating to complaints and discipline. The new VPM Complaints reinforces the obligation to keep complainants informed of the progress of the matter. A new Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) role has been developed with the SIO having an obligation set out in the VPM to “Ensure victims and / or complainants are advised of investigative milestones and the outcome of the investigation in accordance with VPM Victims Support and the Victims Charter Act 2006 if applicable”. 

    Recommendation 8

    That Victoria Police improves the quality of supervision provided by Ethics and Professional Standards Officers, and other senior officers, to ensure that complaint investigations and serious incident oversights are thorough, fair, impartial and completed in a timely manner, and that the requirements of the Victoria Police Manual are met. 

    As mentioned in the response to recommendation 7 the development of a new VPM – Complaints creates a role for a SIO. The SIO will be a nominated line manager of the investigator and has specific obligations in respect to the active supervision of the complaint investigation. 
    The SIO has obligations including: 

    • ensuring the conflict of interest from has been completed 
    • discuss, approve and oversight the investigation plan with the investigator 
    • ensure victims and/or complainants are advised of investigative milestones and the outcome 
    • ensure all avenues of investigation are pursued and the investigation is properly conducted and recorded 
    • ensure case progression is continually assessed 
    • ensure appropriate action is taken when the assigned investigator is unable to continue the investigation and 
    • ensure the investigator is actively supervised to ensure progression to resolution with prescribed timeframes. 

    Recommendation 9

    That Victoria Police ensures that patterns of complaints against police officers involving allegations of misconduct against Aboriginal people are considered in ethical health assessments undertaken on officers, and in any actions taken in response to those assessments. 

    The Early Intervention System (EIS) and the Daily Proactive Scanning function are used as tools to monitor patterns of complaints against police officers. This forms part of the consideration in ethical health assessments undertaken on officers. The EIS system draws on many data sets to identify at-risk employees; however, it is not programmed to identify the type of complaint, or origin of a complainant. If an employee is identified as posing an ethical health or wellbeing risk to the organisation, and by extension to the community, further analysis is undertaken by intelligence analysts in compiling an Early Employee Assessment Profile (EEAP). Improvements in the recording of the Aboriginal status of complainants will ensure that patterns of alleged misconduct against Aboriginal people are easier to identify. 

    Where an EEAP is compiled, it is disseminated for local management to address the identified risk(s). A “Task Result” response is initiated through Interpose, ensuring that once local managers address the EEAP, they report any actions taken back to PSC. This information can be drawn upon for future intelligence documents about that employee, or specific to the issues addressed. 

    Recommendation 10

    That Victoria Police takes urgent action to ensure that the Aboriginal status of complainants and people involved in serious incidents is accurately and consistently recorded in the Victoria Police complaints database and other Victoria Police systems. This should include amending the complaints database to ensure that Aboriginal status is recorded as a response to the Standard Indigenous Question rather than as an observation of ‘ethnic appearance’, updating inconsistent records where necessary, and establishing processes for regular monitoring of data quality. 

    Victoria Police will continue to use the 'ethnic appearance’ field in ROCSID and has established processes within Professional Standards Command to ensure this field is only populated for Aboriginal complainants based on the declared indigenous status from the Standard Indigenous Question. Victoria Police is in the process of updating the ROCSID database to reconcile the status of Aboriginal complainants based on their declared indigenous status. An update to the fields in the ‘Ethnic Appearance’ category will record the following codes: 

    • ABL – denotes Aboriginal 
    • TSI – denotes Torres Strait Islander 
    • ATSI – denotes both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. 

    A process of checking historical ROCSID records against existing LEAP entities for Indigenous status, has identified 513 unique records for Aboriginal complainants which need to be revised. Victoria Police will not be reviewing the declared indigenous status on LEAP for complainants where the ‘ethnic appearance’ field on historical ROCSID records is not Aboriginal. 

    The SIQ response of a complainant on the complaint forms will be recorded as such on ROCSID, however the LEAP may record a different status. LEAP will not automatically be changed if it records a different status to the response provided on the complaint form. Victoria Police is obliged to record what a person tells us on each occasion. 

    On the 1 July 2022 the new External Complaint Form was introduced, which includes the SIQ for the complainant as a mandatory field when a complainant inputs their own complaint. They have the option of identifying as either; ‘Aboriginal’, ‘Torres Strait Islander’, ‘Both’, ‘Neither’, or ‘Prefer not to say’.

    In circumstances where a complaint is lodged on behalf of another person, or the complainant wishes to remain anonymous, the SIQ fields are not available. It is anticipated a new Internal Complaint Form will also be released by 30 September 2023, with similar enhancements to the External Complaint Form. 

    The PSC Assessment Log also captures a person’s indigenous status. Data fields available on these Internal and External Complaint Forms include reference to the Standard Indigenous Question. The collection of the SIQ data will improve data quality, ensuring that complaints made by people who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander are correctly recorded. 

    Victoria Police believes it has appropriate processes in place to ensure “other Victoria Police systems” (referred to in the recommendation) accurately record Aboriginal status.