One officer always wore headphones and never talked. She had once reported her supervisor to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, alleging he wanted to blow up a naval base. One was fixated on a 10-year-old bullying incident and was notorious for throwing chairs. Another had run foul of the top brass after inadvertently offering a defence to another officer who was being investigated by professional standards. Yet another had fallen out with the state crime command.
After one particular incident, where an officer who had difficulty regulating his emotions embarked on a foul-mouthed tirade, Ms Nguyen called management. “This place is not conducive to my recovery,” she said.
An email was sent reminding people not to swear.
Ms Nguyen lobbied to return to headquarters, finally returning for a six-week stint in August. “There was no permanent plan for me, I was just being shifted around according to the perpetrator, around his needs,” she said. In September, she was told her job no longer existed. She was offered a role that did not require her qualifications.
Soon after, she was told the alleged offender would not be charged or disciplined, and the force would challenge her work cover claim. She did not return to work.
NSW Police said in a statement that it had a comprehensive complaints system that was overseen by an independent statutory authority and included mechanisms to ensure the confidentiality and welfare of the parties involved. The force was unable to comment on the specific case because it was sub judice, but said it would strenuously defend the allegations.
Maurice Blackburn solicitor Mia Pantechis, who is representing Ms Nguyen at NCAT, said the NSW Police Force’s treatment of Ms Nguyen gave lie to its pledge to end the “boys’ club culture” following the 2019 Broderick review of the force, which found one in three women had faced sexual harassment.
“Not only did Ms Nguyen endure being violated, but she was also sidelined and victimised while the alleged perpetrator was protected,” Ms Pantechis said.
But the case also highlights the difficulty in balancing the rights of complainants with those they have accused.
University of Sydney Professor Catharine Lumby, a former gender adviser for the National Rugby League, said workplaces could act against alleged offenders even if the evidence did not meet the criminal standard and often did so, if for no other reason than managing risk and compliance. Controversially, the NRL does stand aside players who have been accused of sexual misconduct pending charges, but this was possible because they were contractually prevented from bringing the game into disrepute.
“As someone with a law background, I feel very strongly about the presumption of innocence,” Professor Lumby said. “But this is one of the real problems in workplaces. When a woman raises an allegation of harassment, she’s often junior to the man involved, and she is the one who gets moved or has her career threatened.”
Michael Bradley, the managing partner at Marque Lawyers, which is not involved in the case, said the presumption of innocence was critical to the justice system, but the court process ran in parallel to the workplace process, where the primary consideration should be the safety of employees.
The difficulty for employers was managing the rights of both parties while the investigation was conducted.
“It’s a balancing act which is primarily about protecting the complainant because that’s the person who says they’ve been the victim of something horrific,” Mr Bradley said.
“It’s consistently been done badly in most settings, particularly institutional settings because this so-called presumption of innocence has been preferred and prioritised over everything else, and it gets wrapped up in an irrelevant consideration, which is the reputation of the organisation itself.”
The Workers Compensation Commission [WCC] found in February what happened in the workplace following Ms Nguyen’s return to work aggravated a psychological injury that occurred when she was allegedly assaulted.
Evidence was tendered to the commission that showed Ms Nguyen immediately reported the incident and sought medical help, and originally felt supported by management. But eight months later, she felt let down. The force was “not willing to discipline or remove [the alleged perpetrator] or change anything,” she told her psychiatrist. “So they removed me from the work location to minimise the risk of us seeing each other.”
The WCC found there were real events which occurred in the workplace that Ms Nguyen perceived as creating a hostile or offensive working environment, and there was no requirement at law for her perception to be reasonable, rational or proportionate.
But the commission’s decision is under appeal and Ms Nguyen said she was speaking out because she wanted accountability. She said after she made the complaint, she was made to feel like the burden.
“In the police we’re told to speak up if there’s misconduct,” she said. “I did that and it cost me my job.”
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