Media Release, Peter Pyke: 13 October 2010
In 1994 I told then-Queensland Premier Wayne Goss that ‘politicians thought they were pretty powerful but – in our system – it was the police who had all the power’. Goss, a former-lawyer, looked blankly at me. He just didn’t understand what I was on about. As a first-time MP I had just told him that I was about to be charged by police with a number of criminal charges which I have always maintained were false, and the jury who acquitted me later seemed to agree. But I was a mere backbencher in his government and he had a huge majority so why should he care? It seemed to me he didn’t.
When Goss lost office in the next election by just one electorate – the ALP now understands that was my seat of Mount Ommaney which I had lost by a handful of votes after the coppers had smeared me beautifully in the media for fifteen months as only they can do – he may have better understood what I had told him.
The Queensland police – whose campaign slogan is the ironical ‘with honour we serve’ – changed the outcome of the 1995 Queensland election in favour of a Borbidge-led government which – happily for some – let convicted and disgraced police commissioner and junior Rat Pack member Terry Lewis out of gaol four years early. But who’s counting?
This week we have seen more of the handiwork of the Queensland coppers with the release of heavily censored CCTV footage of the bashing of handcuffed prisoners in the custody of that outstanding example of one of Queensland’s ‘finest’, former-senior constable Benjamin Thomas Price, who is shown bashing a tourist and a barmaid at the Airlie Beach police station in the state’s north.
The ex-policeman, 34, was sentenced to 27 months’ jail on 11 October 2010 after pleading guilty to four counts of assault. Steele, a plasterer from NSW, suffered a broken nose, black eyes, a head wound, hearing problems, memory loss and lack of sensation in his arms and hands after his arrest in the popular Whitsundays tourist town. He told the court he was trying to break-up a fight between two mates when he was capsicum sprayed by police. It is alleged Price led the handcuffed Steele to a police car before saying “watch your head” and smashing his face into the vehicle, knocking him unconscious.
Price allegedly dragged Steele from the car outside Airlie Beach watch-house, repeatedly punched him and “kicked him with his boots” in the face, breaking his nose.
CCTV video footage from the police station shows a dazed, heavily bleeding Steele being dragged into an alley beside the watch-house. It shows the handcuffed man being punched in the head before having a fire hose jammed into his mouth, where it was held for up to 90 seconds as another officer watches.
Steele screams and groans in agony and blood can be seen sheeting down the concrete path as the policeman stands on the handcuffs, pressing his hand into the back of the man’s neck, forcing his head into his lap in a brutal spine lock.
“I felt like I was going to drown,” Steele told the court. “He jammed the hose into my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. I was coughing and spluttering blood. It was pretty scary. It went on for a long time. I called him a pussy. He knocked me about. I was pretty dazed, I’d had a boot to my face, my nose was broken. I was choking on my own blood, I felt like I was drowning.”
The vision shows other police officers standing by as Price stuffs a fire hose into his victim’s mouth, nearly drowning him. The CCTV footage also shows Price hitting slightly-built barmaid Renee Tom, 21, slamming her to the floor inside the watch-house in January 2008 and pulling her to her feet by her hair.
As a former police officer who saw service as an operational trainer and academy law lecturer, I know full well that any one of the other police who observed Price’s actions could have stopped Price and even arrested him on the spot for each of his savage bashings. So what happened? Only one of the police shown in the censored footage with their faces blurred did something; it was left to courageous female trainee constable Bree Sonter to do the right thing and to complain about the incidents.
Queensland police deputy commissioner Ian Stewart told reporters on 11 October 2010 that five other officers had resigned and three more were facing potential disciplinary actions over the incidents. All of the other officers who did nothing were complicit in the offences in my opinion.
It was my honour to be sworn in under Commissioner Ray Whitrod in 1976 – Whitrod was a real police commissioner. I immediately saw service in North Queensland and soon discovered that police bashings of Aboriginal and homosexual citizens were everyday sport for far too many Queensland police. It’s easy to say, but individual police have the power to control the behaviour of their peers by stepping in and stopping offences like those committed by Price. I know, I was bashed several times in the Townsville watch-house and once out on the street by my police colleagues for intervening to stop other officers from assaulting prisoners.
As I said at the outset, each individual police officer has the power to arrest anyone, the premier, the prime minister, or another officer. With such power comes enormous responsibility.
That’s the job and that is what is required. Don’t like it? Coppers who aren’t up to it should get out of the kitchen.
Prisoners were being bashed in the custody of Queensland police in the 1970s and we now have incontrovertible evidence they are still being bashed, even under the watchful eye of CCTV. Too many police thugs are protected by their peers and deaths in police custody will continue to occur while other officers fail to serve with real honour.
Is it all bad? As someone who will bleed a little bit blue until the day I die, I like to listen to the police radio on the scanner when I am writing, or driving around. While the Queensland police are badly led by their most senior officers whom I wouldn’t feed, I can report that many of the uniformed officers who undertake first-response operational duties do an excellent job. It is with pride that I can report hearing more often than not in the voices of police on the scanner their obvious humanity and concern for children, young people, battered women, the homeless and the elderly, and I commonly hear police going to great lengths to ensure that everything possible is done for people who need police assistance.
No, it’s not all bad.
If there is a hero in this sad story it is Constable Bree Sonter who did serve Queenslanders with honour.
I call on the Queensland Government to appropriately honour this young woman with the highest police award.
Author: Peter Pyke, 0427 388 598, email@example.com