Racist email scandal engulfs Australian police

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Accused of failing to investigate properly a string of attacks on Indian students, and of racially targeting African immigrants, police in Victoria must have thought their reputation could not sink any lower. Until yesterday, when the force announced that up to 100 officers were being investigated over racist emails that include a graphic image of a man of ethnic minority origin being tortured.

The email scandal, which sent shockwaves across Australia, has already claimed one life: that of a long-serving police sergeant who shot himself in a suburban station on Monday after tendering his resignation three days earlier. Tony Van Gorp, 47, had been challenged by senior officers to give reasons why he should not be dismissed over his involvement in the affair.

Another sergeant, who allegedly introduced the email containing the torture image into the police computer system, is also said to be facing the sack. According to the Melbourne newspaper The Age, "sickening" racist comments were added to the email as it was circulated.

The state's Chief Commissioner, Simon Overland – who admitted last week that there was racism within the force, albeit, he said, confined to a small minority of officers – said yesterday that the emails were too "disturbing and gross" to be released publicly. Mr Overland told a Melbourne radio station: "It's extremely serious, it's offensive, and my view is that it would cause significant concern and alarm in the community if the material was made public."

The image of Victorian police has taken a battering over the past year, following claims that officers failed to acknowledge that attacks on Indian students living in Melbourne were, at least in part, racially motivated. In January one student, Nitin Garg, was stabbed to death in a suburban park after walking home at night from his job in a fast-food restaurant.

Last week a damning report by three legal services concluded that young men from Sudan and other African countries were routinely targeted, verbally abused and even physically assaulted by police. Officers were accused of calling the youths "monkeys" and "black c--- s", of repeatedly arresting and questioning them, and, in one case, of removing their uniforms to beat up a group in a public park.

Responding to allegations of a "culture of racism" in his force, Mr Overland said: "Racist attitudes held by members of Victoria Police – that is not OK. Acting on those racial attitudes is clearly not OK, and where we find it people can expect that I will deal with them in the strongest possible terms."

Yesterday he refused to comment on whether the emails targeted Indians or Africans. But he said they raised real questions about the suitability of certain individuals to serve with the Victorian force.

The commissioner said "a number of racist emails" had been discovered during an investigation by the force's ethical standards department. Homophobic and pornographic material was also found in the computer system, according to one newspaper, the Herald-Sun. The emails over which Mr Van Gorp was investigated were not racist, according to Mr Overland.

The Age reported that only officers who had introduced the material into the computer system would be dismissed. Mr Overland told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "I guess there are different degrees of seriousness, but it was quite widespread."

It was not clear yesterday whether the torture image was based on a real incident, or was confected.