Models of police oversight: What about public trust?

Dr Emma Ryan1
1Deakin University, Burwood, Australia

This paper traces a well-trodden path in examining effective approaches to the oversight of police in Australia. It summarises the spectrum of possibilities in this domain and closely examines three key models of structurally organised oversight, categorised as ‘independent’, ‘external’ and ‘internal’. Using both historical and recent events in Victoria as a case study, it argues that legislated police oversight models currently used across Australia reflect a profound misunderstanding of the central role played by public trust in the exercise of policing. Although volumes of evidence testify to the fact that a relying on police to investigate and respond to the majority of complaints against members is both ineffective and potentially counterproductive, ‘external’ oversight bodies (which are all state-based in Australia) continue to adopt this approach. Under this model all but the most serious misconduct matters, and therefore those that attract the least attention of senior police, are ‘referred’ back for ‘internal’ review within the relevant policing agency. Although significant problems with this approach have been identified in academic literature and government reports nationally and internationally, the model persists. In examining the survival of this flawed approach, questions around transparency, funding and gendered modes of ‘doing oversight’ are explored in this discussion. Ultimately, the paper seeks to add to the cacophony of voices currently restating the importance of publicly-funded, functionally independent oversight bodies for 21st century Australian policing agencies.


Emma is a lecturer in criminology at Deakin University where she is the current Course Director of the Bachelor of Criminology in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. She has taught criminology in several Victorian universities and spent three years working in the Victorian public sector in the area of police oversight. Her doctoral research examined the introduction of conducted energy weapons into Australian policing and she has a long-standing interest in police accountability, especially for their use of force.



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