Supervision, Management and Leadership in the Sue Neill-Fraser Case and the Critical Grey Dinghy

Posted by Barbara Etter APM on 8 September 2014 | 1 Comments

Supervision, management and leadership were found to be factors sorely lacking within policing in the Kennedy Royal Commission into the WA Police (2004). After my 30 years of policing experience, including three and a half years as the Assistant Commissioner in charge of Corruption Prevention and Investigation for WA Police (2006-2009), I am firmly of the view that the importance of appropriate supervision, management and leadership in the investigation of major crimes cannot be overstated.

Peter Stelfox (2011) in “Criminal Investigation: Filling the Skills Gap in Leadership, Management, and Supervision” Policing 5(1) pp.15-22 comments that there are 2 main reasons why there are problems in the management of criminal investigation: the complexity of the process and its inherent invisibility. Much of the investigation process is cognitive: evaluating information, interpreting it and deciding what action to take.  Hence, it is acknowledged that there are difficulties and challenges in ensuring that an investigation is undertaken professionally. Fiona Brookman in Understanding Homicide (2011 Sage) also comments that police are continually making judgements as to the credibility of witness statements and information (p.261). It is therefore essential that records are made of critical decisions and briefings and that there is a method for supervisors to monitor and evaluate the direction of an investigation.

It is clear that there was no investigation plan in the Sue Neill-Fraser case. An investigation plan was recognised as an important part of a serious criminal investigation by the Supreme Court per Evans J at paragraph 84 of State of Tasmania v. Johnston [2009] TASSC 60 (5 August 2009). The lack of such a plan is, in itself, a possible indicator of "tunnel vision" in the case. The investigation was, however, more deficient in relation to the handwritten running sheets and typed Investigation log that was maintained in the absence of an electronic case management system and the failure to maintain records of key briefings, team meetings etc. In addition there was no policy file maintained by the senior investigations officer and no critical decisions log or similar. (For example, in reviewing the judgement in the high profile Lloyd Rayney case in WA, there are several references in Martin J's decision to the WA Police "critical decisions log"). Such documents are commonplace in many policing agencies.

The UK Core Investigative Doctrine (2005, p.112) states that the successful management of an investigation requires planning, organisation, control and motivation and can entail managing any or all of the following:

  • Resources;
  • People;
  • Risk;
  • Quality Assurance;
  • Actions;
  • Record Keeping;
  • Auditable decision making; and
  • Communications.

In the UK, national best practice also stresses the importance of independent reviews even if the homicide has not been solved within 7 to 28 days. Some UK Forces believe the earlier the review the better (Murder Investigation Manual (MIM) Centrex 2006 p.85).  (Sue Neill-Fraser was arrested nearly seven months after Bob Chappell's disappearance).

The Detective Sergeant in charge of the actual investigation into the disappearance of Mr Bob Chappell told the court at the trial of Sue Neill-Fraser that he finished his involvement with the case on 9 June 2009 (CT p.956) (although his final investigation report is dated 19 June 2009). He advised the court that he completed the file and submitted it to his Inspector for review and further recommendations (Court Transcript (CT) p.956). (It is hard to believe that the final report could have been completed in June 2009 as many critical statements were not taken until after Sue Neill-Fraser's arrest on 20 August 2009).

Despite the growing international importance of independent reviews in murder investigations, there does not appear to have been any such review of the investigation in the Bob Chappell case. When Sue Neill-Fraser did write to the Tasmanian Commissioner of Police in a letter dated 30 July 2009 requesting that an independent officer review her case, it was too late. Investigators appeared to have had already formed their views and Sue was subsequently arrested on 20 August 2009. A response to her request for an independent review and her written complaint about “serious concerns regarding the integrity of the police investigation” was received from the Deputy Commissioner on 3 September 2009. The letter advised that:

I can advise you that the file was independently assessed and the result of that review was the decision to charge you with murder.

In saying this, the Deputy Commissioner appears to be referring to the assessment undertaken by the DPP as to whether to charge or not and is not referring to the concept of an independent internal review of the police investigation.

An “assessment and review” of any major investigation or indictable offence appears to have been required under the Tasmanian Police Manual (TPM). The TPM at 8.14.2(5), a section that deals with “Disposition of Indictable Offences” stated:

The police file shall then be forwarded to the relevant Detective Inspector for assessment and review as to further preparation or investigation prior to the defendant’s first appearance at Supreme Court (1st Directions Hearing). Detective Inspectors shall also ensure that disclosure to Defence and copies to the DPP have occurred as required. (emphasis added)

The "assessment and review" document supplied to me in 2012 under RTI, dated 13 August 2009, a week before the arrest, deals with the issues raised in a written complaint made by Sue Neill-Fraser to the Commissioner of Police on 30 July 2009 and also recommends that the Acting Commissioner of Police note the contents of the Briefing Note and the attached final investigation report (dated 19 June 2009) which had been previously forwarded to the DPP on 30 June 2009.

The report is interesting in how it portrays Sue Neill-Fraser to the highest levels of Tasmania Police.  There are examples of strongly judgemental language such as:

Ms Neill-Fraser had “further entangled herself in a litany of lies regarding her movements and actions”.

Investigators have never thought that Neill-Fraser was the only suspect in this matter. However, it became very clear, early in the investigation that she had the motive, the opportunity and she has attempted to divert police at every move.

The assessment and review report is certainly not an independent review, as the relevant Inspector was the Inspector in charge of the investigation from Day One. There is also no evaluation in the report as to whether further preparation was required or any further lines of investigation should be pursued. Further, there is no statement to the effect that proper and full disclosure had occurred in the case.

On the issue of supervision, management and leadership, an examination of the Police Investigation Log (PIL) for Operation Ransack (the operational title for the investigation) shows little formal interaction with senior members within Tasmania Police and no formal briefings, other than one briefing to the relevant Commander, noted as occurring on 2 March 2009. There appear to be no significant inquiries or directions from more senior personnel, including the relevant Commander or the Assistant Commissioner responsible for crime operations, which required documenting. There are no comments, endorsements or any directions from supervisors noted on the PIL nor the timing, dating or signing of entries.

In an RTI request dated 20 August 2012 I requested copies of any written directions given by the Inspector or more senior personnel during the course of the investigation. In a response dated 18 September 2012 Tasmania Police advised “There were no written records of directions given by Inspector [  ] or other senior officers during the investigation”. I also requested a copy of any written record, notes, diary entries pertaining to the briefing of the Commander by the lead Detective Sergeant on 2 March 2009. The response of 18 September 2012 similarly advised that the “briefing of Commander [  ] was verbal and there are no written records”.

More alarmingly, when notes or records of key briefings that were noted on the PIL were requested, advice was provided that no records were kept of such meetings and the decisions had been recorded on a whiteboard. The response from Tasmania Police dated 18 September 2012 stated:

All investigation team briefings were verbal and tasks allocated on whiteboard (no permanent record exists).

An interesting insight into the apparent lack of supervision, management and leadership in this investigation is found at pp.812-813 of the Court Transcript in an interaction between then defence counsel and a Detective Senior Constable, in relation to the police handling of the critical statement by the unnamed witness P36, who, like Paul Conde, saw a grey dinghy, nothing like the Four Winds dinghy, tied to the yacht at 5 pm on Australia Day.  P36 only came forward in November 2009, some 3 months after Sue Neill-Fraser had been arrested but her evidence supported the critical evidence of others, namely Conde, Thomas Clarke and Ikin. The interaction at court went as follows: 

Control yourself and think about the boat, we’re talking about the boat, you made not one single enquiry, that’s correct isn’t it … About which boat?

I’m very tempted to give you a sarcastic answer and I’ll control myself, the grey one? ….I’m – the grey boat, no.

Thank you. Did you discuss the unnamed witness’ statement with any of your senior officers, Detective? … Yes

Who did you discuss it with? … With Detective Inspector [ ].

Yes. When did you do that? … Oh, I don’t recall the exact date but I generally updated him on any information that came in so –

Yes   - around that date if not on the day.

Right. And did Detective Inspector  [ ] give you any instructions about what you should do with respect to that statement, just tell me yes or no? …. No

Did you say to Detective Inspector  [ ] words to the effect –

Look, we now have a grey inflatable boat out there, a large mid grey one, that the witness didn’t observe an outboard on which is nothing like the dinghy from Four Winds doesn’t this raise a problem for us?

… No, I didn’t say that

Didn’t say that? … No

What did you say to him? … I said to him that a witness had come forward and provided evidence about a dinghy being at the – a grey dinghy being at the boat.

Did you give him a copy of the statement? … No.

Oh, sorry, just run that past me again, Detective Inspector [ ] was in charge of the investigation? … That’s correct.

Right. And you didn’t think to give the officer in charge of the investigation a copy of this witness’ statement? … I briefed him on the contents of the statement.

You didn’t think to give the officer in charge a copy of the statement, Detective, is that right? … I didn’t give him a copy I briefed him on the contents.

You briefed him. An oral briefing? … That’s correct.

And did you sit there or stand there in front of the inspector (sic) and read the contents to him or just give him a potted version? I gave him a briefing on the statement that I’d obtained.

Which was just a potted version? … I wouldn’t have read the whole statement to him.

No. You just seem, if I’m right, to have totally ignored the possibility that because of this large mid-grey dinghy that somebody else might have been on board that boat? … Yes

Just totally and absolutely ignored it? … Based on all the file evidence, yes.

Right. It was a little bit embarrassing, I suppose, somebody coming forward at this late stage after the accused had been charged to give you this information, wasn’t it? … No

And you really just ignored it, didn’t you? … No

But made no enquiries? … No

Didn’t it occur to you that, “Hey, look, this is a little bit inconsistent (sic) with what Mr Conde said, we’ve now got two people saying there’s a grey boat there, shouldn’t I look into this more”? … No

Right. Just didn’t even think about it? … I thought about it a lot.

But did nothing, absolutely nothing? … I attached it to the file as I believed it was relevant evidence.

Oh apart from attaching it to the file, which was no doubt your bureaucratic requirement, you did nothing else, did you? … No. 

This interaction in court raises concerning issues about the investigation itself and the level or quality of supervision, management and leadership provided to the investigation.

I suspect that it would be most enlightening if a senior, experienced and respected homicide detective were to be brought in from interstate or overseas to independently and objectively review and formally comment upon the processes and procedures employed in this particular investigation. I wonder if the Tasmanian Commissioner of Police would be courageous enough to allow this to happen? The request by Lloyd Rayney in WA to have an independent review of the investigation into the death of his wife Corryn also appears to be falling on deaf ears.


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  • I hope that my three most recent comments on the grey dingy issue (posted on the Tasmanian Times site) helps to clear up perceptual misunderstanding concerning whether or not it might have been the Four Winds dingy that was sighted by Conde and others (including witness P36).

    Posted by Dr Peter Lozo, 09/09/2015 8:58am (3 years ago)

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