– It was an office Christmas party like many others. Too much grog led a middle manager to try to prove he was still one of the nosy, and so he led the charge to one of Melbourne’s well-known strip clubs.
The trouble was, he was a sergeant from an inner-suburban station, and the bar is purported to be a front for an outlaw motorcycle gang.
It leaves Chief Commissioner Ken Lay wondering about the judgement of some of his police. “How the hell could you think that was a sensible thing to do?”
Lay has been given information in the past few months that has left him no doubt that a small but significant number of police have been groomed by bikies to effectively act as double agents – leaking information, sabotaging investigations and even trafficking drugs with the outlaw gangs.
Make no mistake, the usually upbeat copper is deeply worried, and believes that if the matter is not confronted the organisation could be compromised for decades.
Today’s silly young copper who accepts a free lap-dance in a bikie-controlled strip joint or some pills from a gym junkie may one day be part of an organised crime taskforce. And then the phone call will come.
Police call it the three Cs – Cultivate, Compromise and then Corrupt.
Senior Detective Andrew Tait was a strange fit for the Homicide Squad. The amateur bodybuilder would just smile good-naturedly when colleagues teased that with his muscles he must have been eating steroids at breakfast.
It wasn’t just his build that raised questions. For a squad whose investigators are expected to be self-motivated he was seen as a little unorganised and a tad lazy.
One weekend when he was on call he was found to have taken a squad car to Bundoora to judge a bodybuilding contest.
But if his colleagues didn’t understand him, at least he could turn to a mate he met through a muscle gym.
The trouble was the mate was a patched-up member of an outlaw motorcycle gang who was as adept at pumping the policeman for information as he was at pumping iron.
Tait was arrested in December 2010 when Office of Police Integrity investigators found he had been leaking confidential information to the bikie in exchange for illegal bodybuilding drugs.
They found 500 grams of testosterone on the back seat of his unmarked police car. He resigned, pleaded guilty and was given a suspended jail sentence plus a $10,500 fine.
This is only one example of the problem Lay is determined to confront.
“There is a modern body image culture, and some of our members are the same. They want to look big and tough and they want to have the tattoos. We see it with footballers and others and we see it with some coppers – they are popping pills to help them do that. This puts them in touch with all sorts of undesirable characters,” he says.
Senior police say some young officers are associating with bike affiliates they have met through gyms and tattoo parlours.
Certainly senior police are grappling with the concept of body art and are uncomfortable with the number of younger officers with visible arm tattoos.
They don’t mind young coppers wearing their hearts on their sleeve – it is Celtic symbols, Chinese proverbs and naked mermaids they find troubling.
But it is more than a generation gap driving their concerns. Earlier this year, NSW introduced laws requiring all tattooists to be licences after police found a third of the state’s 300 parlours are bikie fronts.
Police say there is a real risk bikies could cultivate coppers while they lie in the chair for hours getting inked up.
Lay’s message is clear. If police get too close to their tattooists it could end their careers as well as their biceps that will end up being stamped.
It is not only in the tattooist’s chair that a seemingly innocent conversation can destroy an investigation.
Like most employees, police love to talk shop over a toasted sandwich. But those who work ya headquarters have been warned to be careful about what they say in the coffee shop attached to the Victoria Police Centre.
The reason? One of the regulars there is Jay Malkoun, the president of the Comanchero bikie gang – a man unlikely to be invited to the Chief Commissioner’s ball any time soon.
For a bloke who hit a hurdle when he was convicted of heroin trafficking, Malkoun has made a remarkable recovery.
He owns a Maserati, dabbles in debt collecting, is alleged to control the Spearmint Rhino strip club and lives in a penthouse in the building next to police headquarters.
Then there is the question of performance-enhancing drugs. Senior police won’t identify specific areas but they are worried that there are pockets of the force whose members are using testosterone-type drugs, which is why the Chief Commissioner is pushing for more accurate hair testing.
“We are putting our people out on the street with an array of dangerous weapons. It is imperative they are drug-free,” he says.
The fact the mustachioed Police Association secretary, Greg Davies, is not bristling at the concept indicates everyone suspects the elephant in the room grew to that size by taking steroids.
In fact, when the new drug-testing policy is established, police who show signs of behaving erratically or who have muscled up alarmingly can expect to be targets of the tests.
In most cases the police most at risk of crossing the line should be easy to spot. As Lay says,”The members we have seen associating with bikies tend to have poor performance records.”
The young constable was popular with his peers but a frustration to his superiors. Smart and from a good family, he had all the potential in the world but was always a little off the pace.
Habitually late and slack with his paperwork, he had been put on an internal program to improve his performance.
Some worried how he had changed so quickly. When he left the police academy just two years earlier he was naive, skinny and ambitious. Now he spent more time in the gym than on the road and was more interested in parties than patrols.
He had added about 10 kilos of muscle, a sleeve tattoo and some questionable friends to his CV. None went unnoticed.
But when he was caught on telephone intercepts as part of an Echo Taskforce investigation into a bikie gang, those suspicions hardened.
Now he is suspended, suspected of trafficking drugs, including cocaine, with some of Australia’s most notorious bikies. And this is no weekend dabbling – it will be alleged he was a serious commercial dealer.
So how did he go bad so quickly?
Part of it relates to the law of unintended consequences. The state government came to power on the back of a promise to increase police numbers by 1700 in its four-year term.
Taking into account retirements and resignations, police will have to train 4000 recruits in that time to make the quota.
As a result, some who would previously have been rejected are now being sworn in.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Mollen Commission into corruption in the New York police found that many of the officers who turned out to be bent had problems in their past that should have been flagged at the beginning.
In South Australia, those who apply to join the police are told they must submit to a lie-detector test during which they will be questioned about their illicit drugs history and about whether they have links to bikies.
Many choose to seek alternative employment at that point, realising there is no place for the Adelaide versions of Constables Cheech and Chong.
In Victoria, applicants will now have to declare any relationships which could compromise. If a second cousin you hardly know is a crook then policing could still be an option but if your twin is sergeant-at-arms for the Hells Angels then you are going to struggle.
After all, even in the more flexible modern police force, you cannot be expected to be your brother’s (watchhouse) keeper.
There are some who still claim outlaw bikies are misunderstood, and if they flare up tend to keep it in-house. They are the same people who believe houses in forests are made of gingerbread.
Just last week a Melbourne patrol carried out a routine check on a car at a Fitzroy takeaway shop.
The driver, who tried to escape, was a prospect from an outlaw gang. In the car was a loaded firearm, a photo of a man and a map with an address circled. When police took him back to the station, a group of bikies from the same gang turned up as a sign of solidarity.
Police suspect, but can’t prove, they thwarted a murder plot.
Meanwhile, police have carried out 29 raids on bikie properties in the past three weeks, trying to avert a possible war between the Hells Angels and the Bandidos.
This week Ken Lay effectively declared war on all outlaw bikie gangs. And any police officer who is tempted to cross the line – John Silvester
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