Supporters at an inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crimes in Sydney.
Supporters at the final hearing of an inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crimes in Sydney. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS
  • crime, law and justice

‘Defensive’ police missed opportunity in gay hate probe

Maeve Bannister November 14, 2023

A landmark inquiry into possible gay hate-related deaths should ensure lessons are learned, hard truths are told and previously voiceless people are heard. 

But NSW Police might have missed an opportunity to improve its relationship with the LGBTQI community as a result of an “adversarial” approach to the 18-month probe.

Led by commissioner John Sackar, the state inquiry has examined the unsolved killings of LGBTQI people that might have been hate crimes between 1970 and 2010.

It also looked at whether police bias and indifference to attacks on gay people could have affected how the cases were investigated.

In his final address, senior counsel assisting the commission Peter Gray SC suggested Justice Sackar find that 14 of the 22 unsolved deaths investigated by a police strike force were homicides.

Of the remainder, six should be classed as suspected homicides. 

All of those 20 potential homicide cases included reason to suspect LGBTQI bias was a factor in the killings.

Many of Mr Gray’s proposed recommendations related to investigative practices that have already been adopted and endorsed by NSW Police.

Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Gray.
 Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Gray at the inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crimes in Sydney. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

That included a systematic and regular review of all unsolved homicide cases and a reappraisal of existing procedures and resources in the unsolved homicide team.

Another recommendation was for police to undertake additional mandatory training concerning the LGBTQI community, developed with input from representatives and advocacy organisations.

The deaths of 32 people, 24 of which were identified by police strike force Parrabell and eight by the commission, were examined in the inquiry. 

Hearings revealed poor record-keeping practices by police with multiple examples of crucial evidence being lost, destroyed or misplaced over the years.

“Those gaps in the records and exhibits were very damaging from the point of view of the efforts of the special commission to re-investigate such cases,” Mr Gray said.

He also reflected on the increasingly tense interactions between law enforcement and the inquiry.

“From the perspective of the special commission, the attitude of the NSW police force has sometimes appeared overly defensive, even adversarial,” he said. 

While acknowledging police provided the inquiry with substantial assistance, Mr Gray referenced “disappointing aspects” of their involvement. 

This included delays in the production of documents, underlying systemic problems with record-keeping and a lack of reflection about negative or dismissive attitudes potentially still harboured towards LGBTQI people by police.

The closing hearing of the LGBTIQ hate crimes inquiry.
 Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Gray speaks at the closing hearing of the LGBTIQ hate crimes inquiry. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

Mr Gray said despite police publicly stating their support for the inquiry, their actions over the past 18 months were “not easy to reconcile”. 

“A reasonable observer might have thought those positions and stances often gave the appearance of a defensive if not adversarial mindset,” he said. 

“If so, that would indicate an unfortunate missed opportunity on the part of the NSW police force.”

The inquiry represented a chance for NSW Police to cooperate with the LGBTQI community to ensure the future was different from the past, Mr Gray added.

“That opportunity of course still exists and it is hoped that this special commission and report will in the end have contributed to that more positive outcome,” he said.

An “encouraging” letter to the commission from NSW Police said the force looked forward to considering the final report.

“(NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb) acknowledges the violence and discrimination suffered by members of the LGBTQI community, and the (force’s) historical failure to respond adequately to that violence and discrimination,” the letter said.

Honourable Justice John Sackar.
 John Sackar said hating a person because of their identity was “an affront to civilised society”. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

Justice Sackar said while there had been some controversies during the life of the inquiry, one thing was uncontroversial.

“That is that hatred and prejudice against any person because of their identity is an affront to civilised society,” he said. 

A final report will be handed to the state’s governor by December 14.