Top cop waits as State weighs future
Top cop waits as State weighs future

It is difficult to imagine that Karl O'Callaghan was relatively unknown in June 2004 when he was confirmed as WA's 27th Police Commissioner.

It was a miserable winter's day when he was confirmed as Commissioner and much was made of the fact he was offered only a three-year contract rather than the five-years offered to his predecessors.

Fast-forward 7½ years to January this year. With eight months left on his contract, Mr O'Callaghan's future looked so bright the general view was that a contract extension was his for the taking if he wanted it, particularly with an election due in March next year.

But, like that winter's day in June 2004, the storm clouds were forming. There were rumours something was amiss on the sixth floor of police headquarters and the Corruption and Crime Commission was secretly investigating his role in the Perth Hills bushfires and the use of a corporate credit card.

Those clouds still loom even after the CCC cleared Mr O'Callaghan of misconduct in both matters.

A lawyer believed to be involved in reporting the matter to the CCC remains on sick leave, rumours about senior staff movements and relationships among top police brass are rife and State Cabinet is yet to decide whether his performance warrants a contract extension.

Mr O'Callaghan was one of the first officers in the State to complete a PhD. His doctorate, combined with his obscurity back in 2004 led many of the rank-and-file to affectionately refer to him as Dr Who - even though he has shunned the Dr honorific and instead prefers to be known as Mr.

Not long after he began his tenure, he addressed a room full of senior country police officers in a Mandurah hotel conference room. He talked about the need for policing to move with the times - like Dr Who's Tardis, a public police call box that could transport passengers to any point in time and space.

Just to make sure the old-school coppers listening to him were left in no doubt what he meant, the Commissioner picked up a remote control and from behind a door came a large model Dalek rolling along and uttering those immortal words "exterminate, exterminate".

A father of four who was born in Britain in 1956, Mr O'Callaghan was 17 when he became a police cadet in 1973. He graduated dux of his class in 1976 and worked in general and traffic duties across the State.

By 1996, he was promoted to superintendent in charge of professional standards.

Critics have raised concerns that he never worked as a detective.

Mr O'Callaghan entered the top job at a critical time for policing in WA. He followed New Zealand's Barry Matthews, whose tenure was marked by tension with a Labor government that did not appoint him.

More importantly, Mr O'Callaghan was WA's post-royal commission commissioner.

He was charged with the duty of implementing royal commission recommendations and restoring public confidence in a department that had been forced to drag its skeletons from the closet.

It is fascinating to see how he has done that and a stark example came as more than 4000 delegates and the heads of State of more than 50 countries were in Perth for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October.

The first day of the international event was widely tipped to be the day when trouble would erupt between protesters and police. Tension between the groups seemed to increase in the weeks before CHOGM.

But as hundreds of protesters gathered in Forrest Place to start their march on Friday, October 28, Mr O'Callaghan casually wandered among them simply to have a chat.

He is a regular on talkback radio but has rarely, if ever, come across as impatient.

In recent years, he has put pen to paper and written opinion pieces for newspapers, including a controversial piece about Aboriginal youth crime.

Cynics would say that piece marked the start of his campaign for a contract extension. It came close to the time when the CCC launched its inquiries into the Hills fires and corporate credit card use.

Just days after the piece appeared in _The West Australian _, Mr O'Callaghan announced a summer crime strategy to take youths off the street after dark in a bid to cut burglaries, car thefts and stealing offences.

Mr O'Callaghan has been bruised during his time as Commissioner, no more so than the morning he called a news conference to confirm his son Russell had been burnt in a clandestine drug laboratory explosion in Carlisle.

The roll-out of stun guns, championed by Mr O'Callaghan, has been called into question after a string of inappropriate taserings, most notably of Kevin Spratt in a Perth lockup.

Investigative techniques have come under scrutiny, particularly after the High Court quashed the murder conviction of wrongly jailed man Andrew Mallard and with the handling of schoolgirl killer Dante Wyndham Arthurs, who is in jail for the murder of Sofia Rodriguez-Urrutia-Shu.

Critics have quietly said Mr O'Callaghan seems to vanish when bad news rears its head and navigating treacherous waters often falls to his deputy Chris Dawson.

Early in his time as Commissioner he effectively forced the resignation of another of his deputies, Tim Atherton, who became embroiled in an email scandal.

The Atherton case demonstrated another quality that Mr O'Callaghan brings to the table - he is regarded as a man of action, sometimes to the chagrin of his executive team who are charged with the duty of finding a way to quickly implement his ideas.

Bizarrely, it was a perceived lack of action over the Hills fires that threatens Mr O'Callaghan's career.

The CCC accepted that then assistant commissioner Wayne Gregson told Mr O'Callaghan about the severity of the fires on February 6.

The CCC also accepted that Mr O'Callaghan did not get the message, possibly because he could not hear the conversation with Mr Gregson because of noise at the cricket match he was watching from the WACA Ground's presidential box.

Those conversations took place about 2.15pm but he did not call a State Emergency Co-ordination Group meeting until after he was contacted by Mr Dawson about 4.40pm.

State Cabinet has to weigh up Mr O'Callaghan's performance in the context of his entire career. If his contract is extended, he could be WA's longest-serving police commissioner in more than 50 years.

'Mr O'Callaghan has been bruised during his time as Commissioner'."

The West Australian

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