The silent standoff: The Police Commissioner, the Chief Minister, and the Police Minister stare down reality

by | Mar 27, 2022 | Opinion, Special Investigation | 0 comments

ANALYSIS: Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker’s second attempt to explain himself and his political masters this week, in the wake of the most high-profile criminal trial since a former NT police chief went to jail, saw him once again divorced from reality, contradicting his previous statements and leaving us all with more questions than we had before.

The latest attempt to put the public at ease also raises concerns about what is happening behind closed doors and who thought putting Chalker out for the second round would allay anyone’s concerns that the charging of Constable Zach Rolfe wasn’t handled properly.

Does anyone in a position of authority think the public believes Mr Chalker’s comments about the thoroughness of the Rolfe investigation, the speed in which it happened, and his and possibly the Chief Minister’s involvement in it?

And is the Commissioner cognisant that his public utterances seem to sharply contradict what he has said and done previously, or even what he says moments later?

Now think about the great silent standoff that is playing out in front of all of us, that should claim one of the people involved’s job.

What is Chief Minister Michael Gunner saying to Mr Chalker behind closed doors as the pressure builds to asphyxiation level over claims of political interference in the Constable Zach Rolfe murder charge?

What is Police Minister Nicole Manison saying to the Commissioner of Police? She is certainly not saying anything to the public.

What is Mr Chalker saying to NT Police Association president Paul McCue? And why has Mr McCue’s formerly harsh public condemnations of Mr Chalker wavered?

There are undoubtedly some serious, even angry conversations going on internally.

And all of those conversations underscore the biggest barrier in getting to the truth of the matter: mutually assured destruction if Mr Gunner or Ms Manison pull public support from Mr Chalker, or agree to an independent inquiry into the circumstances of the hasty charges.

What would come out then? What are they so afraid of? Why not find some clear air?

Maybe that was why Mr Gunner said recently that Mr Chalker was an “outstanding Commissioner” despite the fact the Commissioner is widely distrusted and not respected by a significant portion of his members and the community.

One thing is certain: nobody in charge is taking any legitimate steps to put the public at ease about any NT Police failings that led to Kumanjayi Walker’s death on November 9, 2019, and for the Territory Indigenous population, and some of the broader community, providing a reason to trust police when dealing with Aboriginal people.

This crisis is covering them like sweat in the build up, with no monsoon in sight.

Legal advice restricts Chalker; when it’s convenient

All would remember – and perhaps will forever – Mr Chalker’s bizarre press conference in the hours after the verdict, where he omitted some key words such as Zach Rolfe, Kumanjayi Walker, police shooting, murder charge, Yuendumu or even Aboriginal, except in a passing reference to Aboriginal liaison police officers.

A press conference, importantly, where he did not take questions from the media.

He tried again on Wednesday, calling an outdoors press conference seemingly for no specific reason.

Did Ms Manison force him to hold it so she didn’t have to answer questions on camera about him, or on the nagging political interference claims related to the charge?

The latest press conference was again bizarre, with Mr Chalker dabbling in the dark arts, raising the spectre of “lies”, “innuendo”, and unnamed people preventing him from talking publicly about certain issues.

At times he spoke with a Pauline Hanson-esque crisis in his voice, sounding like he was going to break down in tears.

It was easy to feel sorry for him, until you evaluated how what he was saying didn’t match up with reality.

He told the media he did not take questions directly after the verdict on legal advice, but did not even attempt to explain why 13 days later he could take questions.

Or why, as the leader of the NT Police force, and a man earning more than $300,000 a year, he could not have said, “On legal advice I cannot speak about that”, on the day of the verdict like he did at the most recent press conference.

His ‘legal limitations’ argument is a thin veneer, one that does not stand up to logic, especially when he, from nowhere, introduced the Palm Island death in custody affair, and the idea civil action there took 10 years, perhaps trying to buy himself a decade of not having to answer questions about the Rolfe charges?

Why else would you bring up that Queensland death in custody from 2004? Or maybe this case was raised before by Mr Chalker, maybe in Yuendumu as the community raged about the death of one of their own?

He’s become a bipolar cricket player, using the legal limitation defence as an excuse to block anything when it relates to an allegation directly against him, versus smashing things for six when he wants to go on a tangent about how any claim of political interference is “a lie”.

He still strangely seems to be running the line that the coronial inquest will somehow clear him and the Chief Minister of any allegations over the charge.

During the press conference on Wednesday, he was rambling again, with an almost hypnotic nonsense, making it difficult for journalists to pin him on a topic, as he illogically meandered like the Adelaide River, leaving it hard to even remember what the question was that sparked the monologue in the first place.

‘That’s why they’re keeping me away from it’

That press conference was held 15 days after another police officer shot a man in Palmerston in the days leading up to the end of the Constable Rolfe trial – while infamously, Mr Chalker was interstate playing golf.

It was a topic he had not called a press conference about, or spoken publicly on, and explained that he couldn’t talk about it “because it’s in the domain of the relevant investigators”.

“And I won’t lean in, and I won’t make public commentary until they are comfortable for me to do that,” he said.

“Again, look at why we’re here. We’re having a conversation about a whole lot of rumour and innuendo (about political interference in the Rolfe charge) that simply has no fact to it.”

“That’s why they’re keeping me away from it. Because when they want the Commissioner to come forward, they want me to speak a fact.”

Do his detectives control what he does publicly now? Or are they, and him, just so scarred by the credible allegations about political interference in an investigation of a police officer shooting an Aboriginal man, that he can’t actually do his job as Police Commissioner properly?

Or is he or they suggesting he did not speak with fact the last time an Aboriginal man was shot by police?

For a contrast to the claim that he cannot speak because a shooting is being investigated, we need to go back to November 11, 2019, his first day on the job, and two days after Kumanjayi Walker was killed by Constable Rolfe.

“This is a tragedy but everybody can be very reassured that we will investigate this fully on behalf of the coroner, to ensure that the outcome is subsequently available for public scrutiny,” he said.

“In the fullness of time, if the evidence leads that way (to discipline or charges against the officers), that will be a decision that is made at that point in time.”

Incidentally, two days later Constable Rolfe was charged with murder.

Police notes linking the Police Commissioner to the charge

At the latest presser, Mr Chalker tries to give the impression the Supreme Court murder verdict involving Constable Rolfe cleared up any idea there was interference, which is completely untrue – partly because the focus of the trial was the murder charge – and if anything, the trial unearthed evidence that directly showed interference.

It will also not be the focus of the coronial, and even if it was, any issues of illegal conduct around the charging of Constable Rolfe, would be sent to Mr Chalker and the Director of Public Prosecutions – the very positions alleged to have been compromised by “political interference” .

And the only bodies that could clear it up are an independent public inquiry, an investigation by the NT Police’s Special References Unit, or an investigation by the Office of the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption.

“We are pleased there is no avenue to suggest any impropriety on the part of the agency (police force) with respects to the investigation,” Mr Chalker said.

“And nor should there be any as it relates to the conduct of the investigation into the coronial on behalf of the coroner.”

In the former statement he seems to be referencing political interference in the charge which will be dealt with a bit later.

In the latter he seems to be referring the so-called Pollock report, which was an investigation into Mr Walker’s death undertaken by Coronial Senior Investigating Officer Detective Superintendent Scott Pollock that somehow went missing during the Constable Rolfe committal hearing.

What the Commissioner said about the Rolfe charge

When asked, on the basis of the concerns outlined in the police notes, why Constable Rolfe was charged so quickly Mr Chalker gave an answer that would be incredibly hard for the public to believe.

“I can’t give you an answer to that because I wasn’t involved in that,” he said.

“I’ve remained at arms-length from the investigation for the whole period of time,” he said. “The matter to charge (Constable Rolfe) was a matter for the investigation team and the DPP. I was as shocked as anybody. And that continues until today.

“I remained at arm’s length relating to the coronial investigation. The decision to charge was a matter between the investigation team and the DPP.

“I can’t proffer you an opinion on that conversation, there was no meeting that I was involved in and was privy to it.”

He even went on to say he had never even asked who had decided to charge Constable Rolfe.

What the Commissioner previously said about the Rolfe charge

Much time has passed since the February 20, 2020 interview Mr Chalker gave to The Australian where he said he had no regrets about Constable Rolfe being charged because it was done to the highest standards.

“I can’t have regrets about how it was handled, because my focus was always on making sure that this investigation of that whole incident will withstand all the rigour of every oversight that we will have,” Commissioner Chalker said.

“That’s what I’ve got to do to give Territorians the full con­fidence of the fact that there will be no fear or favour.”

It is hard to see how he could at the same time, ensure the investigation would withstand the rigour of oversight of the court, without fear or favour, and also have no idea why anyone decided to charge Constable Rolfe.

You can’t even really be charitable and say in the second instance he was talking about what happened after the charge, because he literally was talking only about four days before the charge, where he said he was at “arms-length from the investigation for the whole period of time,” and “that continues until today”.

Could anyone ever really believe that Mr Chalker, especially after the not guilty verdict, did not ask anyone associated with the charge what the basis was for their decision to charge him?

And after such a brutal defeat in the court, with the nation watching, reflect on what went wrong, what failings may have led to the tragic incident in Yuendumu.

Evidence of pressure on investigators

At the press conference on Wednesday, Mr Chalker was asked about Constable Rolfe’s lawyer David Edwardson’s claim that the charge was made without any meaningful evidence.

“Those officers undertook an extremely difficult and challenging job,” Mr Chalker said. “And they did that because we as NT Police know they have to undertake those avenues of inquiry.

“Dedicated officers, acting with impartiality, acting with professionalism had a meeting that ultimately saw the charge being laid with the Director of Public Prosecutions.

“We can all wax lyrical about the speed of that charge, as much as we want. The truth of the matter in the Northern Territory, charges of that nature can be laid relatively quickly.”’

Perhaps instead of waxing lyrical, he should read the notes of his officers who were investigating Mr Walker’s death in the four days leading to the charge, or speak to them, after saying he didn’t know what questions were asked in the Supreme Court trial about the speed of the charge, nor its relevance.

Here’s one example from an investigator into the Rolfe charges:

“Reporting officer advised that it was extremely concerning that crucial elements of an extremely serious criminal/coronial investigation were being hastened for no discerning justifiable reason,” notes from an investigator stated.

“Investigators on scene do not agree with course of action, both arrest element and charge.”

Or what another wrote on the day of Constable Rolfe being charged:

“A caveat was included in the Statement of Facts due to it having been compiled with extremely limited info available at the time of submission,” they wrote.

“Reporting member not comfortable with arrest and rushed process without full assessment of evidence and ability to investigate objectively.”

The changing opinions of the NT Police Association

In The Australian article dated February 20, 2020 Mr Cue accused Mr Chalker of being “out of touch with our troops if he can’t see the irreparable damage the swift charging of Constable Rolfe” had on police morale.

“Our members are still completely dumbfounded by the hasty decision to charge Constable Rolfe with murder, just days after the critical incident, and before a thorough investigation had ­occurred,” Mr McCue said.

“The NTPA still receives ­numerous calls, daily, from members who are angry, disillusioned, and questioning whether they still want to remain in the NT Police force …”

Now he only blames Mr Gunner, accusing him of “political interference” in the charge. Any idea that Mr Chalker, as the boss of cop bosses, might factor into this, seems to no longer occur to him.

Does Mr McCue think there was political interference directly at detective level? Or they went through Assistant Commissioner Nick Anticich, and he just didn’t say anything then, or since to Mr Chalker?

“It was a travesty that Constable Rolfe was charged so quickly and without thorough investigation,” Mr McCue told the media after the verdict.

But when asked by the NT Independent why he had not publicly criticised Mr Chalker since the verdict, Mr McCue said the following.

“I was critical of Mr Chalker for not contacting Constable Rolfe and for his press conference following the verdict,” he wrote.

“And I have conveyed these concerns to Mr Chalker as well. He has since explained he based these actions on legal advice.

“As I have already pointed out in our press release after the verdict, our role is now to visit as many officers as possible to gauge how they are feeling.”

Does his memory not stretch back to February 2020, or does he think his members got over their anger and disillusionment, and it hadn’t been festering for more than a year?

So what has sparked his complete backflip in demeanor towards Mr Chalker?

Mr Chalker stated the members who signed a petition calling for his sacking – which has more than 9,000 signatures in total – did so because of a belief based on a lie.

They may well have signed it because of a lie, but perhaps a different one than that in which Mr Chalker is suggesting.

So many involved with Constable Rolfe’s charging both in NT Police and the DPP have already gone.

Will others follow them?

The Chief Minister, and the Police Minister, and Mr Chalker all have serious questions to answer. And Mr McCue is acting strangely.

Will one of them break the silence, the impasse. And will it cost another their job?

Will consequences flow?

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