The Issue of Call-Taking and Recording in the Sue Neill-Fraser Case

Posted by Barbara Etter APM on 8 September 2014 | 0 Comments

I refer to yesterday's blog posting in relation to the importance of the "Golden Hour" in the Sue Neill-Fraser matter. In this posting, I deal with the issue of phone calls to the Tasmania Police from members of the public wanting to provide information.

In such matters, members of the public have an expectation that phone calls to the police will be recorded and actioned appropriately, particularly in a high profile murder case where there are numerous appeals via the media for people to come forward. Such calls are important in identifying possible witnesses and informants and in the collection of intelligence relevant to the crime. Such calls, for instance, could have included reports concerning the thefts of dinghies in the area, illegal access to boats in the vicinity, or the sighting of suspicious people, vehicles or boats on the Marieville Esplanade foreshore or in the vicinity of the moored Four Winds yacht. The community rightly expects that there would be an established and effective process and some degree of coordination in the taking, handling and recording of such calls.

Consider that there were numerous requests for members of the public to contact police or Crime Stoppers in articles in The Mercury, following Bob Chappell's mysterious disappearance on Australia Day 2009. Early media items directed those with information to the Hobart CIB number 6230 2111, an article in March 2009 asked anyone with information to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000, and an article in August, prior to Sue’s arrest, asked people to contact either of the above numbers.

On 25 June 2012, I applied to Tasmania Police under Right to Information (RTI) legislation for various items, including:

Copies of all records kept detailing relevant phone calls to police relating to the matter.

On 25 July 2012 I was advised by Tasmania Police that:

There is no information responsive to this part of your application.

I was very surprised by this response so I then wrote to the Commissioner of Police on 8 August 2012 and asked for an internal review of this issue. In a response dated 23 August 2012, it was stated:

No specific records were maintained of incoming phone calls to the investigation. The practice is for the details of any phone calls to be entered on the PIL [Police Investigation Log] and follow up investigations as required. There are no records relevant to this request other than the PIL.

Having become very familiar with the Police Investigation Log (PIL) and issues in the case, it did appear to me that not all phone calls had been included in the PIL. To ensure that I covered all sources of information, I contacted the CEO of Crime Stoppers via email on 5 September 2012, given that they may well have been an independent body and retained their own records. I put the question to them:

If someone rings in about a current crime operation, how is the information recorded, collated and then forwarded to police? Does Crime Stoppers retain a copy of such records?

On 11 September 2012, I received the following email response:

Crime Stoppers Tasmania itself does not hold any information. It is all held within the Tasmanian Police system. Any access to information which originated from Crime Stoppers Tasmania can only be accessed through a Right to Information application through Tasmania Police.

And, of course, my RTI application to Tasmania Police had not resulted in any phone records at all.

Given the above responses, it therefore seemed that there were no collated records of phone calls from members of the public either within Crime Stoppers or Tasmania Police (other than the information on the PIL).

As indicated above, I was aware of issues, which would have involved phone contact, that did not appear to have been logged on the PIL. Indeed there were very few mentions of actual calls to "Operation Ransack" recorded on the PIL. I then undertook a careful analysis of the 76 page PIL to note how many phone calls were logged. (It is acknowledged, however, that some entries on the PIL had been blacked out). I decided to look at the first three days (relevant to the "Golden Hour") and the whole operation.

The number of phone calls from members of the public said to have been taken in the first three days, which would be critical to the operation, is unclear as the wording used is "information supplied" or "information from". (We already know from the Coroner's findings of 17 January 2014 that phone contact from Jill Ikin (who saw a different dinghy to that of Four Winds tied up to the yacht in the late afternoon of Australia Day 2009) was not recorded on the PIL). But interpreting the information in the best possible light, it would appear that a maximum of 12 phone calls from members of the public wanting to supply information were received in the first 3 days, which seems very low. Moreover, the total number of phone calls from members of the public logged on the PIL up until the period 20 April 2010, when the log ended (a period of 15 months), appears to be around 28.

The lack of any collated information on calls received from the public (and the lack of detailed records on individual calls) regarding the Bob Chappell murder should be of significant concern to the community. Critical information and intelligence may have been received over the phone, particularly in the early days of the investigation, by either Tasmania Police or Crime Stoppers. The lack of information on phone calls is compounded by the lack of proper records from the doorknocking process.

In this era of increased demand for transparency and accountability, and intelligence-led policing, expectations are that important records relating to major crimes would be kept, analysed, cross-referenced and maintained. Moreover, how does one review the scope, effectiveness and fairness of a police murder investigation when critical records appear to be missing?

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