8 September 2023

Top cop defends ACT police handling of Lehrmann, 'the most unusual case I've seen in 40 years'

| Genevieve Jacobs
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ACT Policing Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan

ACT Policing Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan says his force has been vindicated by the Sofronoff report. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

The ACT’s Chief Police Officer, Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan, has strongly defended the police investigation of the Lehrmann case, calling the matter “absolutely unique” among sexual assault cases.

“I cannot remember a case with this amount of public scrutiny,” he told Region.

“It is unique in a number of ways including the location of the alleged offence, a whole raft of things. It’s probably the most unusual case I’ve seen in 40 years of policing.”

But, he said, he wanted sexual assault victims to know that “not every matter goes this way, the vast majority don’t”.

“People’s perceptions of how police deal with these matters should not be blinded by this very unusual case.”

Mr Sofronoff said in his board of inquiry report police “made some mistakes” in how they dealt with sexual assault claims made by Brittany Higgins against Bruce Lehrmann, but none affected the substance of the investigation or prejudiced the case.

“Some of them caused unnecessary pain to Ms Higgins and others,” Mr Sofronoff said, but added he was “confident” these issues had been or will be addressed by police.

Mr Lehrmann has not been found guilty of any offence and maintains his innocence.

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Former DPP Shane Drumgold complained to the Deputy Commissioner last year that police officers engaged in “a very clear campaign to pressure” him not to prosecute Ms Higgins’ allegations. He claimed there had been “inappropriate interference” and he felt investigators had “aligned” with the defence.

Ms Higgins also said on social media that ACT police officers presented her with “a folder of unfounded claims”, intended to discredit her and reiterated to her why she shouldn’t press charges.

But the Deputy Commissioner said this was, in fact, the brief prepared by Detective Superintendent Scott Moller and was necessary to determine the weight of evidence and likelihood a prosecution could be mounted on the facts.

“That brief rightly pointed out areas where investigators felt there might be problems with the prosecution, that’s their job,” he said.

“Their role is to search for the truth regardless of where it lies, and they may have to ask uncomfortable questions to get to the truth sometimes.”

ACT Police have accepted and are working to implement 10 recommendations from the Sofronoff report, the most critical of which centres around the “test of charges”. The board of inquiry found a wide range of understanding among ACT police about when charges should be laid, which the Deputy Commissioner attributes to differing levels of experience and training in the force.

Commissioner Gaughan conceded that the proportion of inexperienced police across his force is also higher than he would like. He denies the sexual assault investigation team was a training ground but has now appointed a designated detective inspector to lead the team, changed training for personnel and allocated more resources.

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He told Region he also does not believe there are substantial cultural issues with police disbelieving sexual assault allegations, while admitting that a small proportion of officers may do so.

“My force is made up of the community and a very small number of people in the community do still think that way,” he said. “But more broadly, nobody believes women intentionally make false reports. That’s not part of our culture here.

“While Detective Moller conceded in evidence that mistakes were made in this matter, there would be very few cases where that doesn’t happen somewhere along the line.

“We’ve had a number of successful recent prosecutions and convictions in court on sexual assault charges. The situation is nowhere near as dire as people think it is.

“We have systems in place to protect individuals and allow them to remain anonymous but in this case the person involved chose not to do so.”

ACT Police, the Victims of Crime Commissioner and the DPP have formed a working group on the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Steering Committee’s report (SAPR) chaired by the Justice and Community Safety Directorate, and the CPO acknowledges there’s further work to be done.

“Despite the publicity, we’ve had zero reduction in complaints. Stats for family violence are through the roof, some of those victims are also sexual assault victims. We arrested five people in one night recently on family violence charges.

“From police to the Rape Crisis Centre, Domestic Violence Crisis Service, the Victims of Crime Commissioner, the system should wrap around you and help you,” the Deputy Commissioner said.

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If it wasn’t in Parliament House would charges ever been laid? A girl going out and voluntarily getting drunk and waking up without her undies is hardly unique. What is, is the payout for something that was never proven. If it had been Brittney and Bruce from Big W, would charges been laid or would a reported 2 million been paid out?

I do not treat his view as very relevant. We witnessed, though the enquirer, that Police did not have a clear understanding of when it was appropriate to lay a charge, one of the most basic pieces of knowledge that Police need. We also learnt that the medical notes and brief were provided to the defence. Seriously, the Police stuffed this up and lock very amateurish. AFP leadership needs to get its house in order, rather that sending out messages about how hard the job is.

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