Ten reasons to like the Lay of the land

HE STOOD at the lectern staring at the back of the room, determined not to give his detractors the satisfaction of seeing him crack.

HE STOOD at the lectern staring at the back of the room, determined not to give his detractors the satisfaction of seeing him crack.

Wearing his chief commissioner's uniform for the last time, Simon Overland was even denied the freedom to make his own announcement, as the government had already told the media he was quitting.

In reality, he was squeezed out, Police Minister Peter Ryan having told him the night before that he had finally lost the government's confidence.

A year has passed since Overland became only the second chief commissioner to be forced from office. (The first, General Sir Thomas Blamey, had a colourful reputation for regularly mislaying both the truth and his trousers while dabbling in law enforcement between the wars.) Since Overland left, an unexpected thing has happened: there has been an outbreak of peace within Victoria's police force.

Overland's departure followed an ugly public spat with Sir Ken Jones at that point one of his three deputy commissioners a dispute that would cost them their respective careers. This meant a caretaker boss had to be appointed from one of Overland's two remaining deputies, Kieran Walshe or Ken Lay. The experienced Walshe said he didn't want the job and has since announced his retirement, effective at the end of this month.

That left Lay, who took the post a year ago today, believing he would be in the chair for only a few months while the government chose a new chief.

At first he was wary of applying for the permanent post but once he did it became apparent it was his to lose, and in November the government appointed him on a five-year contract.

The quietly spoken Lay made it clear at his first news conference that the days of senior officers indulging in damaging bickering were over. "The first priorities will be to develop a leadership group that is united, loyal and instils confidence," he said.

He inherited an organisation that he now admits "was bleeding and under attack" and saw his first job as rebuilding moral. "I had a sense that police were sick and tired of hearing about internal problems and a story that no one really understood. There was this real thirst to get back to real policing, to keep society safe and forget about the rest," he said over a quick chat this week in between visiting country stations.

"The highlight for me has been the way the organisation has responded in what has been the most difficult time I have seen as a manager. I have felt broad support and an overwhelming desire for us to pull together as a team."

While he wants to look forward, however, he clearly believes Simon Overland has been unfairly maligned. "He is a good and honourable man who instigated many reforms that are now making a difference. He gave us the flexibility to get numbers to problem areas and led the way on initiatives in the family violence area. As a result, I think women are safer in their own homes."

Despite inquiries by the Office of Police Integrity and the Ombudsman, we still seem some distance from knowing the real events that culminated in Overland's resignation. With hostilities increasing between Overland and Sir Ken Jones last year, Jones resigned and was set to leave in August but was forced out in May because Overland suspected he was leaking embarrassing material to the media.

Jones had his own concerns about Overland, including a belief that the chief commissioner had released dodgy crime figures before the last state election. Both men have refused to speak publicly about the events surrounding their demises, although both believe their reputations have been unfairly trashed for political purposes.

The Ombudsman's report criticised Overland's decision to release incomplete statistics, but stopped short of saying he had been politically motivated. The OPI is yet to complete its investigation into Jones, hampered by the fact that the former deputy commissioner is not co-operating with the probe.

Just last week, an OPI spokesman told The Age: "The issues are complex and there are several steps yet to be undertaken, including the time-consuming natural justice process." This perhaps indicates that the OPI is poised to make findings critical of Jones and wants him to respond. Jones has made it clear he has no confidence in the police watchdog that will soon be replaced by the much-delayed Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (which so far has had a gestation period longer than a woolly mammoth with a dodgy thyroid).

In the meantime, Lay has been getting on with the job he accepted despite his initial misgivings. And at the completion of his first year it seems to this columnist there are 10 reasons why this reluctant chief commissioner has proved to be the right man for the job.

1. Independence. The manner of Overland's demise and revelations that a key insider in Ryan's office was trying to destabilise the chief commissioner has led to the government taking a strict hands-off approach to policing. Without needing to flex his muscles, Lay appears to be the most independent chief since Mick Miller retired 25 years ago.

2. Office politics. Ruthless in-house politics, cliques and conspiracies have for years damaged the top echelons of policing. Some of the star players were more interested in climbing the ladder and standing on the hands of their rivals than doing their public duty. Lay didn't seek the position and took some time to decide to apply when the job became vacant. He made no enemies along the way and remains a popular choice. The only ice pick he has used was for a whisky in the old days (now he's a neat man). He is also aware of the dangers of becoming isolated and confides in his top people, strengthening team spirit.

3. Home-ground advantage. After two "outsiders", Christine Nixon (New South Wales) and Simon Overland (Australian Federal Police), rank-and-file police wanted one of their own and Lay, a 38-year veteran, is the home-grown product.

4. Media performer. As a former traffic assistant commissioner, he is used to building partnerships with the press. And after elements of the media spent months reporting every real and imagined Overland mistake, relationships appear to have calmed.

5. Honeymoon period. Where there are police there will always be controversy, and the past year has been no different: police chases, decisions to use private cars to create a roadblock on the Hume Freeway, footage of police assaulting a motorist in country Victoria and the questionable handling of Carl Williams before he was killed in prison. Yet there has been barely a ripple of sustained criticism.

Lay defends his troops when he can but throws his hand up and admits mistakes when he can't. "I think the community doesn't want their chief commissioner to be a player in the political arena or a spin doctor. We are an organisation of 16,000 people and sometimes we will get it wrong. And we should admit it when we do," he says.

6. Union blues. The powerful Police Association was virtually at war with the previous three chief commissioners. This time Lay and association secretary Greg Davies (who worked together at the Prahran station) have been able to establish a solid working relationship.

7. Sneaky leaks. Overland made it clear he would sack anyone he found leaking to the media. Many senior police, rightly or wrongly, believed their phones were being tapped on spurious grounds. Lay has said he has no problem with police talking to reporters on matters of legitimate public interest. He trusts his people unless given evidence to the contrary.

8. Good bloke bonus. Lay is relaxed and gregarious. He likes a laugh and doesn't take himself too seriously. Recently when he saw a former colleague he waited until no one else was listening, leant over and said, "Me, Chief Commissioner, who would have ever thought!" When he speaks at police functions he leaves his troops feeling important. "I think morale feels really good at the moment. When you walk into a station there is a real feeling that people want to get on with it."

9. Lucky Ken. For years chief commissioners have fought for extra resources. Lay has inherited expensive government election pledges, including 1700 extra police and a record budget.

10. Steady as she goes. After years of change, some forced, some prudent and many simply silly, rank-and-file police tired of inconsistent messages from the top. Lay keeps a light hand on the tiller. He wants a traditional force with strong internal discipline, easily understood objectives and a sound work ethic. We are back to using cop-speak rather than management buzzwords. Suddenly KPIs (key performance indicators) are not the only focus, while solving GBH (grievous bodily harm) is the new black.

Lay may not have chased the job, but he has embraced the job. By the time he finishes, he wants Victoria to have the best force in Australia.

"I want our people to have real pride in what we do and to walk two inches taller than when I took over."

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