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22 January 2014

NSW police could use children to catch vendors selling alcohol to minors

Plan to use children in undercover stings comes despite criticism of police for lapses in reporting on similar operations

Children could be used in undercover operations to catch alcohol vendors selling to minors in New South Wales, despite the state's ombudsman criticising police for several years over their reporting of similar operations.

The proposal forms part of the NSW premier, Barry O'Farrell's 16-point plan to curb alcohol-related violence. Critics have described parts of the plan as a knee-jerk reaction and the proposed mandatory sentences for a range of offences as ineffective.

Covert controlled operations by police involving minors or young-looking adults will be permitted to support enforcement of laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors, point 15 of the plan reads.

When undercover police operations occur, the civilians or police that may have to commit offences, such as in relation to drug sales, need to be authorised to do so. Police are then required to report to the police commissioner and to the NSW ombudsman about aspects of the operations, but they have been slow to do so in recent years.

As reported last year, there remains a significant issue with delays in NSW police force officers providing reports to the commissioner's delegate as required. Consequently, there is also a significant delay reporting notifications being made to this office as required, the 2011-2012 annual report said.

At the time of the last report, NSW police had failed to provide over 300 notifications relating to controlled operations to the ombudsman. In a warning to the police, the ombudsman wrote that it would be requesting penalties for police failing to provide information about the operations.

If these outstanding issues which have been previously raised are not addressed, and if a system cannot be implemented to effectively reduce failure to notify, this office will request the attorney general to strengthen the accountability mechanisms in this act.

NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge said the proposal was troubling given the oversight problems.

The real concern is there's nobody looking over the shoulder of police when it comes to controlled operations. They fail the most basic reporting tasks, he said.

The prospect of people aged under 18 being caught up in police covert operations with the present scheme, which has almost a complete absence of oversight, is very troubling. There's been no explanation from the premier what kinds of protections will be in place to ensure children are safe and not exploited.

Shoebridge has called on the government to introduce an independent advocate when controlled operations are approved.

We need closer scrutiny by the courts when the orders are made. That means appointing an overall inspector who can act as an amicus curiae in the proceedings to test the police evidence at the time the warrant is being granted, he said.

When the 2012 report was released NSW police said in a statement: The ombudsman has identified some administrative delays related to the submission of reports for some operations. It is important to note that there is total transparency: the ombudsman is able to identify, access and obtain the files where the NSWPF has been late in notifying it of the conduct reports.

The NSW police force accepts the ombudsman's recommendations and undertakes to consult with the ombudsman's office on the appropriate systems to be introduced.

There were 279 authorisations for controlled operations in the 2012 reporting period, with the majority relating to the supply of prohibited drugs. Of these operations, there were 94 civilians involved in them.

Comment has been sought from NSW police and the premier's office.

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