Mr Clean and the call girl cop

Peter Ryan was brought in from Britain to purge the corruption- riddled Sydney police. But it's the force's battle with a prostitute-turned- whistle blower that is dominating Australian headlines

Police corruption in New South Wales goes back to the Rum Corps in the 18th century, and a culture of police corruption in Sydney has spawned so many royal commissions of inquiry that people have lost count. The most recent - the Wood Commission in 1995 - uncovered such scandals that the NSW government decided it had to look abroad for a man who could cleanse the "service", as the force is called.

They chose Peter Ryan, who was 53, and had served in Greater Manchester, the Met and in Norfolk, where he was chief constable. But nothing in his 30-year career could have prepared him for his first high-profile case in Sydney, that of Kim Hollingsworth: constable, undercover agent for the Wood Commission, nightclub stripper and prostitute.

Her story has gripped Australia more than Commissioner Ryan's other problems - eight murders in one week, the suicides of 11 officers facing exposure for corruption, a power struggle with the Police Minister, hostility from the Police Association (its members yelled at him, "Pom go home") and resentment at his linking of organised crime to ethnic groups.

Ms Hollingsworth, 30, once earned A$400 (pounds 200) an hour as a prostitute in some of Sydney's best-known legal brothels, and she stripped regularly at police parties, providing "discount sex" for officers afterwards. Now she has successfully sued Mr Ryan and the NSW Police Service for wrongful dismissal.

Ms Hollingsworth is a tabloid newspaper editor's dream. The daughter of a police officer, she left home at 20 and, although she drifted into prostitution and striptease, all she ever wanted to do was join the force. In May 1995, after a cursory investigation into her background, she was accepted for training at the NSW Police Academy.

There she was recognised by a young detective who remembered seeing her at a police strip night. She thought her police career had come to an abrupt end, but he told her that, on the contrary, he wanted her to become a part-time madam at a brothel he planned to open.

Ms Hollingsworth says she was outraged and decided to blow the whistle. The Wood Commission's officers concealed a video camera in her flat and recruited a number of civilians to play the part of "crooked coppers" during a month-long sting.

But the Police Service knew of Ms Hollingsworth's role and, after checking her background again, sacked her. The police lawyer told the Industrial Commission that on her application for the force she had described her previous jobs as student, model and shop assistant. The police said she had "failed the first test of integrity".

Worried about her safety, Ms Hollingsworth called on the Wood Commission to honour its promise and enter her into a witness protection programme. She got it; as she told the Industrial Commission: "They gave me a one- way plane ticket to Adelaide and an A$600 loan and suggested that I go back to work in a brothel to repay the loan."

The Industrial Commission ruled that the police could choose between giving her back her badge or paying compensation, which caused some surprise even in Sydney - although the police case had not, perhaps, been enhanced by its lawyer, Terry Anderson, who, after appearing in a dark suit, arrived at court one morning wearing a dress, carrying a handbag, and sporting frizzy ginger hair. He announced he had had a sex-change operation and should henceforth be referred to as Teresa.

THE SCALE of the problem Peter Ryan has taken on was defined by the Wood Commission: "Corruption in NSW embraces receipt of bribes, green- lighting, franchising, protection or running interference for organised crime, releasing confidential information and warning of pending police activity, quitting or pulling police prosecutions, providing favours in respect of bail or sentencing, extortion, contract killings, stealing, supplying drugs, and other forms of direct participation in serious criminal activity. That is without being exhaustive."

Only Mr Ryan can explain why he took it on: "The sheer size of the task, of dealing with a state four times the size of the UK, the tremendous operational demands of tackling Australian organised crime, Asian crime, the Mafia, drugs, European-influenced crime - let alone the preparation for the Olympic Games - must make it the most demanding police job in the English-speaking world. I thought I'd like to try to do my best."

He moved quickly. He has dismissed more than 20 officers and suspended more than 150. When it was seen that he was not afraid to sack officers, there was a rush to resign. But the Police Association has threatened strike action and nine sacked officers are taking legal action.

There was also disquiet among ethnic community leaders when Mr Ryan told the British Police Review that crime in NSW had strong links to ethnic groups: "Here crime is partly Lebanese-based, partly from the old Soviet Union, Hong Kong, Vietnam and China. There are vast amounts of money, principally based on drugs."

MR RYAN'S suggestion that perhaps the answer to the drugs problem was law reform, including trying out the decriminalisation of hard drugs such as heroin, led to his first clash with the Police Minister, Paul Whelan.

Then there was the dispute over the old Special Branch. The branch was wound up in March on the day its head admitted to the Wood Commission that it had kept illegal files on barristers, and that its officers regularly returned to work drunk after long lunches. When an advert appeared calling for recruits for a new branch to be called the Protective Security Response Group, Mr Whelan accused Mr Ryan of trying to reconstitute the Special Branch. He said the group would not become operational until the government was satisfied it could not develop into another enclave of corruption. Mr Ryan replied that this was an operational matter and therefore a decision for him.

But behind the row is a nagging worry in the government that, in its desire to end police corruption once and for all, it may have given Mr Ryan too free a hand and created a new power base in state politics. Mr Ryan, for his part, says there are "forces of evil" within the service trying to damage his reputation. But he remains confident. "I think they know I can do the job. That is if the government doesn't go weak at the knees."

He shouldn't bet on it.

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