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Guardian Australia reporter Eden Gillespie in Brisbane
Guardian Australia reporter Eden Gillespie in Brisbane. She says listening to the Queensland police watch house tapes left her ‘sick in the stomach’. Photograph: Dan Peled/The Guardian

The startling evidence of racism Queensland police couldn’t shrug off

Guardian Australia reporter Eden Gillespie in Brisbane. She says listening to the Queensland police watch house tapes left her ‘sick in the stomach’. Photograph: Dan Peled/The Guardian

Leaked audio from Brisbane’s watch house outraged Australia. Reporters Eden Gillespie and Ben Smee reflect on the game-changing scoop – and a ‘blue wall of silence’

Eden Gillespie could never have guessed that a chance meeting in a courtroom would lead to the public release of damning evidence of racism in the Queensland police force.

It was August 2022 and the Queensland state reporter for Guardian Australia was covering the commission of inquiry into Queensland police responses to domestic and family violence – the state equivalent of a royal commission.

As she sat in the public gallery, hearing evidence of widespread cultural problems in the force, she struck up a conversation with a man named Steven Marshall. Quickly she realised his interest in the hearing was personal. He’d been a watch house officer. Right in the thick of it.

“We just got talking,” Gillespie says. “And I handed him my business card.”

Weeks later, during one of their many text message chats, Marshall revealed he had recorded audio inside Brisbane city watch house while he’d been working. He was present during the conversations. As the pair sat together and listened to the tapes, Gillespie says she “felt sick in the stomach”.

QPS recording 1, December 2019

They revealed the shocking slurs and violent language used by a number of officers working in the watch house from 2019 to 2020. Officers joked about beating and burying black people, referred to Nigerians as “jigaboos”, and discussed their fears that Australia “will be fucking taken over”.

There were discussions about “outbreeding” by Muslim immigrants and, when speaking about African population growth, the comment “let’s just hope Ebola works”.

The conversations were brazen and casual. “It was pretty emotional … and probably somewhat triggering for [Marshall] to have to re-listen to the awful things that we heard,” Gillespie says.

Along with Guardian Australia’s Queensland correspondent, Ben Smee, Gillespie had written at length about cultural problems within the force, some of which had spurred the inquiry. But she knew the tapes were a game-changer at a time the police union was trying to claim racism and sexism in its force were not widespread.

She remembers thinking: “The police can’t deny this. There’s no way they can shrug it off. Until now, we’d never really heard inside the watch house.”

A sign at the entrance to the Brisbane Watch House
The entrance to the Brisbane Watch House. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

For Marshall, the potential consequences of publication were high.

“We discussed it for many months,” Gillespie says. “There was a process back and forth for quite a while deciding, ‘Are we going to publish the recordings, are we going to name him?’”

Eventually, Marshall decided he didn’t want to be anonymous.

“He felt that if there were any reprisals it was better for him to put his own name to it,” Gillespie says. “We had seen consequences in the past against other whistleblowers … [who] never returned to the service.”

After a weeks-long internal process, Guardian Australia published the audio in November, to widespread public outrage.

The response was swift.

On the Tuesday after the recordings were released, the police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, and the police minister, Mark Ryan, spent almost an hour answering questions from the media.

Queensland’s human rights commissioner, Scott McDougall, said “clear” and “pervasive” cultural problems were plaguing the force.

“The police and government held a series of press conferences and said they were sickened by it, they apologised,” Gillespie says. “But the investigation continues.”

A spokesperson for Queensland police told Guardian Australia: “The matter remains under investigation by the Ethical Standards Command and no further information can be provided at this time.” Gillespie understands the officers in the leaked audio still have their jobs.

Six months later, Marshall hasn’t faced any formal consequences – but in a private Facebook group, officers have described him as a “dog” and a “rat”. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ben Smee at home in Brisbane
Ben Smee at home in Brisbane: ‘You have a culture that has come to prioritise the protection of the organisation and the people in it, rather than the broader community.’ Photograph: Dan Peled/The Guardian

Smee has covered cultural problems in the Queensland police for years – from officers dismissing domestic violence victims to the sexual harassment of colleagues.

“The way the organisation tends to work is not to hold bad behaviour to account,” he says. “A blue wall of silence has operated acutely in Queensland over the last few decades.”

The story that sticks with him most is of a woman who had her address leaked to her former partner by a police officer.

In 2014 the woman was pregnant and fearful of her repeatedly violent former husband when Neil Glen Punchard, then a senior constable in the Queensland police, hacked into a confidential database and leaked her address to him.

Police decided not to pursue criminal charges against Punchard at the time but, after considerable public pressure, they reopened a criminal investigation and charged him with computer hacking in December 2018. He was stood down from operational duty.

Neil Punchard outside court in 2019
Senior Constable Neil Punchard outside court in 2019. Photograph: Glenn Hunt/AAP

Punchard pleaded guilty and was formally suspended but his career remained in limbo during repeated appeals regarding the severity of his sentence, and he remained on a senior constable’s salary throughout. He eventually resigned five years later.

“[Within Queensland police] you have a culture that has come to prioritise the protection of the organisation and the people in it, rather than the broader community,” Smee says.

“We hear the right noises from the police hierarchy in terms of trying to address this but there’s still real evidence it hasn’t filtered down to day-to-day decision-making.”

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