Fake breath tests: VicPol agrees to improve ethics and evidence-based leadership

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday January 16, 2019

Victoria Police has accepted 23 recommendations from its former chief Neil Comrie following last year’s revelations of faked breath tests.

The force needs to improve its ethics, integrity, accountability and governance, according to the former chief commissioner, who investigated the practice of recording fake clean breath tests to pretend drink-driving is less common than it is. Directives from the top brass need to be supported by evidence and intelligence, and take heed of feedback from the frontline so that officers understand the purpose behind their roles.

The affair provides a perfect example of why senior leaders need to careful about how they introduce performance targets: they can easily backfire and lead to absurd situations where the only thing that matters is making sure everything looks good on paper. In this case, the budget included an aspiration that 99.5% of preliminary (roadside) breath tests would be under the legal limit, demonstrating Victorians were getting the message through deterrence and public campaigns. But officers simply found ways to record false negatives to make sure that happened.

According to the former chief, this target “creates the perverse situation that proactive drink driving law enforcement that achieves more than 0.5% positive PBT tests annually is regarded as not meeting the required budget performance outcome for PBTs” and he adds that the numerical goal was “regarded as meaningless and unachievable by many members of the Force” due to a lack of evidence and explanation behind it.

“Other causal factors include poor supervisory and governance practices, inadequate data management regimes and technological inadequacies in PBT devices,” Comrie writes in an extract from his full report, published today.

These outcome-based targets started off as aspirational, but became “absolute targets for front-line members” somewhere along the line.

According to Comrie’s inquiries, a lot of officers have lost faith in the roadside breath testing program:

“Many members consider that the activities associated with meeting PBT targets negatively impact their ability to undertake their road policing and other community safety responsibilities, including that they are instructed to avoid detecting impaired drivers; and many members do not value the undertaking of high numbers of successive PBTs as ‘real police work’ in that they have limited opportunity to ask questions of drivers or make other inquiries not related to the PBT process.”

He also comments that a decision to increase the number of PBTs conducted in April 2017 “was not based on any credible scientific evidence or articulated strategy” and not well explained to frontline officers. Among his recommendations is that the police take note of the principle of subsidiarity:

“Take the necessary steps to ensure that decision making is devolved, as a matter of principle and as far as possible to the level closest to those who implement the decisions to enhance leadership and accountability for such decisions. “

“This allows for accountability to be devolved to the level where actions are taken and also allows for leadership to attend to issues as they arise in such a way that the responsibility for implementation occurs at the closest possible level for those who are required to perform tasks,” he explains in the report.

Comrie found the falsification was “widespread and had been undertaken over a lengthy period of time” across all regions of Victoria, but decided in the end that it was impossible to accurately estimate the exact number of false zero-readings in the records.

He confirmed it was “a common experience for new recruits to be inducted into the practice early in their careers through instruction from more experienced members” and his investigation led him to believe that it also goes on in other jurisdictions.

“Experts in the field of road traffic safety research have been consulted and inquiries have been made with interstate and overseas jurisdictions where preliminary breath testing issues have been the subject of prior or ongoing examination.

“It is clear from these inquiries that the problem of PBT falsification is not confined to Victoria alone.”

Comrie’s 23 recommendations include more ethics education for all officers and new oversight mechanisms so there is more chance to see whether individual examples of dodgy behaviour in future are actually widespread. The top brass claimed to have no idea this was going on, and Comrie reports he found no evidence to contradict them.

Other recommendations include more thoughtful decision-making that involves looking “through an ethical lens for likely consequences and systems effects both at the organisational and individual level” and is informed by much more feedback from frontline officers, both before and after they are given new marching orders.

While a lot of the recommendations revolve around the specifics of the breath testing program and how it fits into the wider road safety efforts, one key recommendation goes towards better leadership in general:

“Take the necessary steps to ensure that all tasking directives are evidence-based and intelligence led and that a prior full assessment is undertaken to ensure that the impact at regional and local levels of each such directive is understood, fully considered and achievable. This approach should be followed by leaders at all levels actively testing for the consequences of decisions made and to actively monitor their impact and take prompt corrective action where necessary.”

Road Policing Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane described the practice as “a blight on Victoria Police’s otherwise world-leading road safety regime” in a statement today, but added that on the plus side, last year’s road toll was the lowest ever. “We have made it absolutely clear to our police that the practice must stop,” he added.

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