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Ashton's legacy in a time of crises, victories and tragedies - The Age
When Graham Ashton took over he would have thought he was prepared for anything. Who would have anticipated a state of emergency with wartime powers for police?
While former deputy commissioner Sir Ken Jones, who left after a clash with then chief commissioner Simon Overland, has applied, he has not made the shortlist and the smart money is that a local senior officer will take the top job. When Ashton retires he will leave a force that has changed markedly, altered by single tragedies, long-running crises and deliberate policy switches. Sir Ken Jones with then chief commissioner Simon Overland in 2009. He will not be appointed the next chief.Credit:Paul Rovere When he took over the job he would have thought he was prepared for anything but who would have anticipated a state of emergency where police were given wartime powers? Once police entered a house looking for clandestine amphetamine labs, now they go in looking for clandestine dinner parties. At the height of the lockdown police were getting 4000 calls reporting breaches. Now every on-the-spot fine for breaking virus rules is reviewed by a supervisor to avoid unintended breaches. It is highly unlikely you will go to Barwon Prison for blowing your nose in public. The Ashton era has seen a modernisation program, particularly in the basket case that was IT. It is certainly a bigger job, with police numbers (including Protective Services Officers) jumping from 15,000 in June 2015 to 17,200 last year and heading for more than 19,000 in two years time. The budget is at an all-time high. At one point police were struggling to find enough suitable applicants to keep pace but the economic consequences of COVID-19 have changed all that. Last month there was a record number of applicants. In a time of depression, a secure job is a valuable commodity. The new chief commissioner will try to take some of the lessons learnt during the lockdown into the "new normal". Many police stations have stopped dealing with walk-ins, meaning more police are on the road rather than behind a counter. Extra patrols have increased visible police presence, boosted community confidence and deterred crime. Maybe we have also learnt we dont need two PSOs on near-deserted railway stations and they can be better used elsewhere. Five years ago the biggest threat was mass attacks, leading to bollards springing up around Melbourne. While it is a testament to counter terrorism command that we have so far escaped organised terror raids, Melbourne has three times been subject to vehicle attack. In January 2017 James Gargasoulas, a driver being slowly followed by police, turned left into the Bourke Street Mall and deliberately ploughed into pedestrians, killing six and injuring 27. In November the following year a man tried to turn his utility into a bomb, crashing in the same street before stabbing to death beloved restaurant owner Sisto Malaspina. The driver was shot dead when he threatened police with a knife. Police believe the driver was heading to the Mall to replicate the Gargasoulas attack but was prevented by the bollards. In December 2017 a driver deliberately ploughed into pedestrians in Flinders Street, killing one. He was arrested by off-duty policeman Sergeant Francis Adams, who dragged him from his vehicle. The response from police was to introduce the Hostile Vehicle Policy directing officers to take direct action if they suspect a driver is about to use a car as a weapon. The action includes ramming, blockading and, if required, shooting to kill. Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton the clear favourite to be the next chief said: We will not wait for offenders to plough into people. The instructions are that you must do something, that you must stop these attacks and that the response must be proportionate and justified. Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton. Frontrunner to be the next chief commissioner.Credit:AAP The Hostile Vehicle Policy, coupled with active shooter rules, where the first police on site are expected to fight fire with fire, new sniper rules that allow specialists more freedom to use fatal force, high-tech crowd control weapons and the rollout of powerful rifles point to a deliberate shift in policy. Before this shift, fear of civil action, concern over internal criticism and a desire to limit injuries had meant many police middle managers became risk-averse, preferring to do nothing than take strong action. These new rules are part of a plan by senior officers to back their troops when they take (reasonable) assertive action. We will watch this space with interest to see if they back these noble sentiments when the pressure is on. When Ashton took over, Victoria had just set up the first Family Violence Command, recognising the greatest threat to safety comes from within the family home. No longer do police treat family violence as just domestics. Some Family Violence Unit cases chill to the bone. These units save lives but the number of women killed by ex-partners is an ongoing scandal. Next time someone uses the expression "un-Australian", consider the fact that assaulting women is our unofficial national pastime. Widespread crime survives only when it is tolerated, and the easiest way to avoid a problem is not to look. Police argue that now they are listening more victims are coming forward. They expect a spike in reports as the lockdown is eased and victims can escape their homes. Over the past few years there has been a steady drip of controversy involving cases first reported as triumphs. The first is the role of Nicola Gobbo, barrister turned police informer. The Purana taskforce has long been seen as the pinnacle of investigations a group of detectives that smashed Melbournes underworld war. We will wait until November to get some clarity when the royal commission delivers its final report. There are two contrasting schools of thought here. The first contends that Gobbo was a criminal who informed to save her skin. In this view, the fact she was a barrister is irrelevant. The second is that she was a mentally frail and frightened lawyer who was encouraged by ruthless police to breach her ethics and betray her clients. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. If she gave police confidential information while acting as a barrister that resulted in her clients not getting fair trials, those convictions need to be reviewed. Faruk Orman walking free from the Supreme Court in July.Credit:Eddie Jim This was the case with Faruk Orman, who served 12 years before his conviction for the 2002 murder of gunman Victor Peirce was overturned. He is suing Victoria Police for false imprisonment in what is likely to be a very expensive case. But if Gobbo gave information she learnt while partying and snorting coke with crooks then that would seem to be fair game. A law degree does not include a badge of honesty and, as in every profession, there are good and bad. There have been lawyers who have bashed staff, organised murders, committed armed robberies, trafficked drugs, concealed evidence, laundered dirty cash and stolen clients money. Jim Coghlan: Blew the whistle but no one was listening.Credit:Simon Schluter The man who locked up drug dealer Tony Mokbel, Detective Sergeant Jim Coghlan, made a statement to the commission that a Melbourne lawyer helped launder $100,000 in an interstate casino for the drug boss. Yet that astonishing claim has not resulted in the slightest outrage. It would appear to be business as usual. The second major review is into the conviction of Jason Roberts, who was found guilty along with Bandali Debs of the 1998 Moorabbin murders of police officers Gary Silk and Rod Miller. Roberts, who remained silent at his trial, now says he wasnt in the car when it was pulled over and that Debs used two guns to kill the police. The discovery of an allegedly doctored police statement resulted in the Supreme Court giving Roberts the right to appeal his conviction. Senior prosecutors say if he wins, they are confident he would be convicted in a retrial. While the public support for police remains high, there will always be astonishing lapses in judgment that defy explanation. Such as taking snaps of former North Melbourne coach Dean Laidley inside a police station in a state of vulnerability and sharing them through social media. It was not evil, it was not malicious, it was just plain dumb, a lapse in judgment that for some will be career-defining. Police deaths on duty are a chief commissioners greatest fear and Ashton has had to deal with the terrible aftermath of the death of four police, mown down on the Eastern Freeway during a traffic stop. The week before he had to reach out to the colleagues and family of a police officer who had taken their own life. A 2017 Victoria Police Mental Health and Wellbeing study found about 32 per cent of police workers had suffered a diagnosed mental health condition and 90 per cent experienced burnout. A study showed 1.7 per cent of police had undertaken some planning to take their own lives. This is four times the community rate. Ashton has made a real commitment to the mental health of serving and former members. That will be his lasting legacy. John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his "Sly of the Underworld" segment.