Sydney supercop fails to clean up force

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A former British chief constable recruited to clean up Australia's biggest police force has defended his record after an undercover operation revealed that corruption is still endemic.

At a public inquiry held by the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) in Sydney last week, a network of crooked officers admitted "giving the green light" to drug dealers in exchange for weekly bribes. They were also alleged to have planted guns on suspects, stolen cash and drugs from dealers' homes and tipped off burglars about promising properties.

The unfolding scandal has enthralled the Australian public, but is a serious embarrassment to the New South Wales Police Commissioner, Peter Ryan, who was headhunted from Britain in 1996 after a royal commission uncovered systematic corruption in the force.

The former Norfolk chief constable, who was appointed amid great fanfare, claimed earlier this year that his mission to reform the NSW force was almost complete. The revelations emerging from the PIC, a statutory watchdog set up after the royal commission, suggest that his boast was premature. The hearings follow Operation Florida, a three-year "sting" mounted by the force's internal anti-corruption unit.

Microphones and cameras were planted in toilets, telephones and stairwells at the police station in Manly, an affluent beachside suburb on Sydney's North Shore. Detectives were secretly filmed as they met drug dealers in the car parks of shopping malls and social clubs. At the station, their conversations were recorded as they bickered over their ill-gotten gains.

An undercover officer was posted to Manly, where he gathered evidence about a clique of detectives who called themselves "the giggle". Several drug dealers also cooperated.

The public gallery at the inquiry was spellbound last week as the tapes were played back and the corrupt officers, called as witnesses, cracked under questioning.

One detective, Senior Constable David Patison, was filmed stuffing wads of banknotes down his trousers after stumbling across a large stash of money while searching a cannabis dealer's home. During another raid, three officers stole $40,000 (about £14,000) hidden in a dirty sock. "Happy days," chortled one as he counted his share.

One of the North Shore's biggest heroin dealers, Vince Caccamo, proved a fruitful contact for these detectives. Caccamo paid Patison and his partner, Senior Constable Matthew Jasper, a total of $92,000 last year including weekly bribes of $1,000. When the pair fancied some extra money, they would simply find Caccamo and take bank-notes from his wallet. He was, as one observer remarked, like a human cash dispenser.

Caccamo was taped as he complained to a sidekick, Anthony Markarian, that the two were bleeding him dry. "Every cent I make goes to them," he said. In Markarian''s view: "It's like having a shop and paying rent." Another dealer chipped in: "Being taxed." The inquiry was also told that Jasper arranged for a convicted burglar to rob an acquaintance's house, telling him that the owner was "not really security conscious" and he would find cash and jewellery in the bedroom. Some of the proceeds went to Jasper.

None of this has done wonders for the image of NSW police. Last week, motorists pulled over for speeding were reportedly asking highway patrol officers: "How much?" Mr Ryan, who was recently given a new contract worth $400,000 a year, attempted to rally his troops. "Wear your uniform with pride," he urged them. That will be difficult, with another 20 officers due to testify before the PIC's focus widens to the rest of Sydney.

Mr Ryan said he was "very angry" about the latest wave of corruption, but claimed it proved that his reforms were working. "The systems are there," he said. "They just don't comply with them." The officers are suspended on full pay, except for one, Sergeant David Hill, who told the inquiry on Friday he planned to resign after giving evidence. "Why wait?" asked Peter Hastings, counsel to the inquiry. Hill promptly complied.