Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

The cop's cop comes home

By PHIL TAYLOR

Good practice, that Incis police computer debacle turned out to be. One hundred and thirty million dollars went west on a system which could have made our lawmen the envy of the world. Problem was, the computer system wouldn't work and couldn't be saved. The computer boffins upped sticks and walked, leaving the police feeling embarrassed.

One of the most embarrassed was Barry Matthews, the deputy commissioner at the time. As the police's Incis project manager, he had come to know, but never become used to, the dread feeling of waking in the small hours to the trickle of sweat on his nape.

Sleepless nights? "Oh yeah, many. Used to wake up sweating. We'd resolve a problem and the next day another would crop up," recalls Matthews.

A nightmare time but, looking back, Matthews is philosophical. Had it come off, New Zealand would have had a world-beating system. Instead, they got custard and humble pie. "That's often the way. The boldness of the idea - if it had come together, it would have been magnificent."

Around the time the Incis custard was flowing, Matthews was heading for the setting sun, to become the new Western Australia police commissioner. It was his choice to go and the job was a step up to the top police rung.

He says he wasn't looking for a bolt-hole.

"I carried my share of the can as project manager when the thing eventually failed."

He had inherited that task from the police commissioner of the time, Peter Doone, but was holding the parcel when the music stopped.

Any thickening of the skin that experience produced would have proved an asset in Australia. Matthews was taking up the reins of a police force whose integrity was on trial, one considered perhaps the most chauvinist in Australasia.

And he was doing this in a state whose isolation magnifies its parochialism. He was the second outsider, and the first non-Australian.

That was five years ago. Later this month, he boards the Indian Pacific for a two-day train trip east across the Nullarbor, Perth fading fast in the rear view and, after a holiday in Britain, is bound for Wellington and home.

At 58, he considers himself too young to retire but says he would look for contract work. He would like a role with a little less profile.

But squeeze him on whether he would like to be New Zealand's police commissioner (Rob Robinson's term is up next year) and he puts it in the "maybe" category. Maybe, if Robinson didn't want to continue. Maybe, if he felt prepared to give the required commitment.

Matthews, who has degrees in law and management, followed Victorian Bob Falconer in the Australian job. Falconer oversaw a restructuring, in essence a compacting in which some traditional squads were amalgamated and others disappeared.

The whiff of corruption was in the air. It is suggested that is part of the reasoning for the CIB (Criminal Investigation Branch) being reorganised out of existence, the rationale being the plain-clothes police, by the nature of the work, might be most susceptible.

When Matthews arrived, the opposition Labor Party, led by its police spokeswoman, Michelle Roberts, was pushing for an inquiry into allegations of corruption. It became part of Labor's election pledges and, after coming to power, a Royal Commission of inquiry into corruption within the Western Australian Police Force began in 2002. It ran through last year and reported in February.

Matthews picks as his toughest task supporting the morale and maintaining the focus of a police force whose credibility was on trial.

The good news was the westies didn't usurp Queensland's reputation before its royal commission, as the best police force money could buy. But Matthews' police could easily have become despondent and distracted by what was coming out in hearings.

"Some of it was quite shocking," says Matthews.

The misdeeds of individual officers were scrutinised but so, too, was the performance of the police force in "detecting, preventing and pursuing those corrupt officers. That ranged from administrative instructions, management, supervision, leadership, planning, policy, effectiveness of reviews," he says.

"Not only were individual officers being exposed, but some of the shortcomings in the police service were being examined as well."

It turned out the rot paled in comparison to that exposed by the inquiries in Queensland and New South Wales. It did uncover new evidence of corruption but Matthews says it was generally historic or confined to corrupt pockets.

Among the misdeeds was stealing money, drugs or other property from criminals, passing information to them and assaulting suspects.

Matthews readily admits that part of the job of police commissioner is to go in to bat for his troops, though you shouldn't try to defend the indefensible. So when West Australian Premier Geoff Gallop selected the most damning aspects of the report with which to have a go at police, Matthews went public "to add some balance".

It may also have been in the interests of the Labor Government that the inquiry it called be seen to be productive. Whatever the reasons, the premier and Michelle Roberts, who had been promoted to police minister, weren't best buddies with Matthews. Late last year, they asked him - privately - to resign.

Had he done so, it would have been the job of a new police boss to assess and put into effect recommendations by the royal commission. Matthews told the ABC in April he wouldn't go early because he had been assured it was not performance-related and because he wanted to see out his term.

"She [Roberts] gave reasons as to why - with the royal commission report coming out - it might be desirable." Matthews didn't, and doesn't, accept the reasons. So he stayed, telling the minister he had made a commitment to stay five years "and I stick by my commitments".

Part of the friction between the commissioner and the minister seems to be about jurisdiction, the boundary between political policy and police operational matters.

They found themselves on opposite ends of the argument over the pending decision to close one of the state's most famous unsolved crimes, the Claremont serial murders.

The minister wants it kept open, the top cop sees no point if leads are exhausted. Matthews names this case when asked about any regrets.

Three women are suspected of being murdered by the same man. Finding the person responsible would have brought some peace of mind to the community.

A cop's cop, the closest Matthews will come to confirming the bodies provided none of the killer's DNA is that they were found after some months in the open, not the best circumstances for the collection of forensic exhibits.

It is assumed one killer is involved but, says Matthews, "I don't think there is any doubt by anybody that one person is responsible for all three. That led to considerable fear, particularly at the time. Is this person going to carry on?

"At this stage it does not appear so. But that could be for a range of reasons, including that the person could have left the state."

Another may be the killer had the self-discipline to stop. A report in the West Australian about the so-called top suspect notes he has given up three cherished Aussie pastimes: drinking, smoking and gambling.

But such things don't add up to a case to bring to court. Unless an independent review of the case file identifies anything to be done, the file will be closed pending new evidence.

"It may never be solved. It's just the nature of those types of crimes. They are difficult to solve because they are generally done by a loner who doesn't talk to other people."

Right now a question mark sits over New Zealand's police in the form of a rare commission of inquiry sparked by Louise Nicholas' allegations of being gang raped by police in Rotorua and Murupara in the 1980s and 1990s and of her complaint being covered up.

Matthews suspects it was right for the Government to call the inquiry, given the public disquiet. Though collusion is among the allegations the inquiry will consider, Matthews believes the New Zealand police compares well with most.

There will be corrupt individuals, such as Brent Garner, the officer who set fire to his home and faked an attack on himself , but there is not a culture of corruption.

"One thing that distinguishes New Zealand from Australian police services is people acting in concert, in a group. [Western Australia] had six detectives working as a team on a joint enterprise. In New Zealand it's more the case of individual officers acting corruptly."

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