Two days before Christmas, as bushfires raged across New South Wales, the special minister of state, Don Harwin, quietly announced the departure of the chief commissioner of the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, Michael Adams QC.
In a short statement, Harwin said he was “grateful” for Adams’ leadership and thanked him “for his efforts as the inaugural head of the NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission”.
The timing was interesting.
Adams, the inaugural head of the police watchdog introduced in 2017 to replace the Police Integrity Commission, the Ombudsman and the NSW Crime Commission, was part way through leading an explosive inquiry into the use of strip-search powers on minors by police.
In the most high profile investigation undertaken in the agency’s short history, two sets of public hearings uncovered evidence of police conducting potentially illegal searches on children and revealed many police did not understand the laws governing strip-searches.
In one case, a 15-year-old boy said he “shook with nerves” after a police officer told him to “hold your dick and lift your balls up and show me your gooch” during a search at an under-18s music festival in February last year.
The investigation had not yet concluded. In December, Adams said further hearings slated for late January or February would “focus on the psychological issues raised by strip-searching of young persons”. He had also told the inquiry that the LECC would review whether it was legal for officers to force people to squat during a strip search, a common practice.
But this week the Guardian revealed that following Adams’ departure, the hearings will no longer go ahead. Instead, sources said a truncated version of the investigation’s findings will most likely be released in two parts in February and April.
The decision to cut short the strip-search inquiry has been widely criticised. Andrew Stone SC, the NSW state president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said the issue “goes to the very heart of public confidence in the police and must be fully examined”.
“The evidence heard by this inquiry to date requires thorough, ongoing investigation to determine whether police have conducted illegal strip-searches of minors,” Stone said.
“We ask that [acting LECC chief commissioner Reginald Blanch QC] explains why this inquiry was terminated and reconsiders this decision. If the LECC does not continue this inquiry, it is essential that a parliamentary committee be given responsibility to do so.
“The public hearings held last year revealed disturbing evidence of police misusing strip-search powers on minors and indicated that there is confusion among police in relation to the laws governing strip-searches.”
But the timing and nature of Adams’ dismissal also raises questions about the LECC’s power to hold police to account. The strip-search inquiry was embarrassing for the NSW government and police, but the former supreme court justice had already proven he was unafraid of taking on the government that appointed him.
During his term he was relentless in pointing out that the NSW government has failed to adequately fund the agency since its inception, and in 2018 accused the former police minister Troy Grant of seeking to improperly influence staffing decisions at the LECC in order to placate the police union.
The day after Harwin announced Adams’ departure, a story published in the Australian quoted an unnamed government official saying the decision not to renew his term was based on the findings of a confidential inquiry which found the agency was “dysfunctional” and “raised concerns about leadership at the highest levels”.
That report was released this week. Authored by respected Sydney barrister Bruce McClintock SC, it was based on complaints made against Adams by a fellow LECC commissioner, Patrick Saidi.
But McClintock’s report cleared Adams of any wrongdoing. While Saidi had accused Adams of running the LECC in an “autocratic” manner, McClintock’s report concluded that “on the contrary”, Adams had “behaved in a consultative manner showing very considerable forbearance towards Mr Saidi in the face of rudeness and provocation”.
Instead, McClintock considered whether Saidi himself may have engaged in “maladministration or misconduct”. He did not make a finding on that point. Guardian Australia understands Saidi was removed from the LECC in January, shortly after Adams.
On Friday Harwin’s office would not comment on whether the report had been the basis for Adams’ dismissal.
Sam Lee, the head of police accountability at the Redfern Legal Centre, said the government needed to be more transparent about the reasons for Adams’ removal.
“An independent police watchdog plays a pivotal role in ensuring the integrity and accountability of NSW police,” he said. “Any disruption to this body via the removal of its chief commissioner should also be transparent and accountable.
“If the government has relied on a report that found no wrong doing by the chief commissioner to remove him from office, then the public may rightly be concerned.”
In any case, Adams’ removal is a hammer blow for justice advocates in NSW.
Adams had barely gotten comfortable in his chair in 2017 when he flagged that the LECC would begin investigating the Suspect Target Management Plan, a “hidden” blacklist used by the state’s police force to target children as young as 10 for monitoring despite them not having committed any crime.
Under his watch the LECC also revealed widespread mismanagement of the NSW child protection register that led to a child being sexually abused by a sex offender who should have been monitored by police and two people being unlawfully imprisoned.
“It is vital that New South Wales has a well-funded, highly resourced and independent police watchdog, one which can act with integrity and independence,” Lee said.
“The recent removal of two LECC commissioners and the cutting short of the strip-search inquiry will not instil public confidence in such processes.”