Police are spying on us

Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House on an overcast day.
A mega-crim's getaway boat? Or just part of the NSW ferries service? It was suitably dark and overcast at the Dangerous Ideas conference.

David Mutton, who was the NSW Police’s chief psychologist for 11 years, is now a lecturer at UWS in forensic psychology. “Crime pays,” he said, conceding he’d made a good living out of it.

He was speaking at the Dangerous Ideas conference at the Sydney Opera House. Mutton said that most people think it’s OK if the police spy on lots of people because “if you’re not doing anything wrong, it doesn’t matter”.

But then he gave us an example of how a “cleanskin” (innocent person) can be under surveillance for being unwittingly associated with a criminal — eg. the criminal’s accountant or former school friend. He told a story of how a woman at a bar could get involved with a criminal, unknowingly, and then all her activities, including bedroom gymnastics, would be caught on film, phone, email etc and observed/cheered on by the surveillance team.

Also, if you’re a cleanskin, you can be called in and be forced to tell the truth and spill your guts about anything you know (under pain of five years’ jail if you lie or refuse to talk). These meetings are kept secret (you hope!).  “There’s no right to silence,” Mutton said, despite your innocence and lack of involvement.

By monitoring phone conversations, police psychologists can detect criminals’ vulnerabilities and use that to derail them, particularly in interviews.

These measures are needed, Mutton pointed out, because organised crime costs a huge amount — about 1.3 per cent of GDP every year; the ACC (Australian Crime Commission) costs $10 billion a year to run, and there’s also lost tax and business revenue. “Crime touches all of us — it affects our social capital and happiness. It erodes the things that make life worthwhile by breaking down trust.”

He said he doesn’t watch crime shows about psychologist profilers, and, anyway, profilers aren’t needed as “we know who all the major criminals are”. It’s getting evidence and informers that’s difficult. To find informers, the police “find out whose wife the major criminal has been sleeping with. What buttons can we push?”

“Rival criminals will often point the finger at each other — they’re so desperate to get rid of a rival, they’ll divulge what their competitor is doing, even though this will open up a position for a new offender in the business. They’d rather deal with a new competitor and get rid of the old one.”

He said psychologists help exploit offenders’ vulnerabilities so they can be undermined and to predict their future behaviour. “Most criminals have vulnerabilities and stresses, and they’re also usually narcissistic or psychopathic. People often say their bosses are psychopaths, or Brendan Nelson recently said Malcolm Turnbull was narcissistic — though he later took back that comment — but criminals are on a different scale.” He said their weaknesses include: grandiosity, needing admiration, envy, arrogance, haughtiness, impulse control problems, needing a buzz, cruelty, callousness, coldness. “They’re usually very powerful and are used to others kow towing to them.”

He said police interviewers exploit these weaknesses by, say, placing an attractive person in the room who the offender might want to impress by boasting about past exploits. Interviewers will “play dumb” to entice the offender to brag.

He said psychologists are involved in torture in these mental ways. “It’s a similar way to some US Govt guidelines for torture — leave no physical signs.” “But there are worse things you can do to a person than physical torture.”

He said police psychologists face an ethical dilemma since they’re not following the psychologists’ code of ethics, which is “inadequate to govern this type of work”. It breaks the  UN Declaration of human rights too. “We’re following a more utilitarian model — some people have to suffer for the greater good. For every good thing, there is negative collateral, and, as a society, we accept that.” The psychologists are trying to get around the ethical problems by teaching police examiners how to use the psychological tactics.

A lawyer in the audience asked: “Can criminals hire psychologists to help them against these tactics?” Mutton said: “Yes. Medicare provides six to 12 free sessions of counselling.” (that’s available to the general public too.)

A shot of the program.
A shot of the program.

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