Deep Water Whitewash

Whitewash, by Romana Klee

As the police relationship with the LGTBI community continues to deteriorate, despite the Mardi Gras apology, are the NSW Police ready to open up about their past failures to protect us, or are they planning to continue dodging their responsibilities to murder victims & their families

During her 12 years as NSW Police gay liaison co-ordinator, Sue Thompson used police intelligence data to record 46 gay-hate murders in NSW between 1989 and 1999. Professor of Criminology, Stephen Tomsen of Western Sydney University supported that, finding 50 between 1985 and 1995.

Thanks to a prolonged campaign by the family of one of the victims, Scott Johnson, NSW Police have been forced to conduct a re-examination of their old case files. These murders form the subject of the current SBS Deep Water project, with a cop show, a documentary, and interactive websites. But the police appeared determined to continue to obscure, rather than reveal, the facts.

[Previously on the stirrer


It’s looking increasingly unlikely that that Operation Parrabell, the NSW Police re-examination of their files relating to the murders of gay men in the 1980-90s, will throw little light on what happened, or on the shortcomings of the police of the time. Instead, it is more likely to throw a bucket of whitewash over the whole business.


Firstly, they are not actively re-investigating any of these crimes, merely re-examining existing police files. As many investigating officers of the time tended to be indifferent, if not actively hostile, towards gay men, this led to indifferent and superficial investigations, meaning the files themselves lack a great deal of crucial information. Former police detective and crime writer Duncan McNab, himself gay, told SBS:

“Sydney was a bloody dangerous spot if you happened to be a gay man. There are horror stories of men who’d gone to a police station to report being bashed only to be taken to the cells and be bashed for reporting a bashing. The police culture of that period stank.”


Secondly, the much-vaunted FBI criteria the police are using to re-examine the files are not appropriate for the purpose. They are likely to lead to many of the cases failing to be identified as hate crimes. Professor Stephen Tomsen, a renowned expert with “decades of research experience, publishing, and international reputation for his work on violence (including homicides) and hate crime, crime and culture, policing, masculinities, sexualities, drinking and drug (ab)use”, said:

“The FBI criteria were developed for the US government to better record and track patterns of hate/bias crimes by organised groups of extremists – the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, radical militia, survivalists, etc – rather than more everyday types of prejudiced people.

“The bulk of attacks, including fatal attacks, directed at gay men, lesbians and queers come from perpetrators without such dramatic hate group identities.

“Many of these incidents are hate attacks that could be overlooked by a rigid adherence to the FBI criteria.

“If police rigidly use FBI criteria they will ignore the proximity of the body to a very violent gay beat and classify the death as having no evident relation to a bias motive and therefore a probable suicide.”

That reduces the likelihood of any actual re-investigations occurring.

Operation Parrabell does not carry out individual investigations but reviews the inquiries that took place at the time of the deaths. It will refer cases for further investigation whenever it finds any possibility it was motivated by bias against the victim. (SBS)

Professor Tomsen says despite what any optimist might expect of Parrabell, the process is designed to cull cases and shorten the list of gay hate crimes.


Thirdly, there are questions over the diligence with which the police are conducting their work. NSW Police have already made serious mistakes. Tomsen says:

The gay and lesbian community now have good reason to be sceptical about NSW Police inquiries in this area given public revelations about their failure to ever acknowledge or investigate the 1980s William Rooney killing in Wollongong.

SBS found police failed to check even basic file details, such as victim names. They dismissed the 1986 death of a “William Rudney” saying: “There are no coronial records of a death of a person of this name.” That’s because the man’s name was “William Rooney”. Tomsen explains:

I discovered this case in the 1990s and then alerted police about it many times since then. I did this most recently at a police and queer community meeting held at Police Headquarters in Surry Hills in December 2015. Yet they ignored the information I provided and still did not investigate this matter.

The Homicide Squad and its Unsolved Homicide Team were again alerted to the Rooney case in late May this year by Duncan McNab, and again in July. This record of either indifference or incompetence – probably both – does not inspire confidence. And as SBS reports, the police failed to follow up leads in more cases.

“Rudney” is not the only case in which the source of the information nominated was “unable to be verified”. This refrain was the police response to another three of the 30 cases in the report to the State Coroner. And yet, police contacted none of the sources listed for these three, either, to seek verification.


NSW Police have made repeated attempts to downplay the extent of the horror, and cut the list of unsolved gay murders as short as possible: from the 80+ identified by Tomsen and Thompson, to 30, to eight. The original list was most vociferously attacked by Detective Chief Inspector Pamela Young of the Unsolved Homicide Team who suggested that all but eight cases were suicide, accident, misadventure, or murder with no gay-hate motive. SBS has an interactive website of 30 cases here.

According to SBS, Superintendent Tony Crandell (the police force’s LGBTI corporate sponsor) dismissed concerns about Parrabell, saying that

“Independent academics would be recruited to conduct a review of Parrabell to ensure it is scrutinised and that its final recommendations are carefully considered.”


Here, too, there are grounds for concern. It is well known among academics in the criminology field that NSW Police have been “expert shopping” for some time, deliberately seeking out someone with few if any links to anti-violence research and activism in this field, anti-gay homicide, or the Sydney LGBTI community.

Clearly Operation Parrabell is more about public relations than about crime solving, or righting wrongs, let alone acknowledging past errors. Professor Tomsen comments:

Parrabell’s core purpose now is probably to downplay the total number of proven or likely anti-gay killings and to limit the further criticism of police that may come at the forthcoming Scott Johnson Coronial inquiry.

From what we know the “operation” seems to be nothing more that re-checking and re-classifying of material that is already sitting in a pile of files and boxes. This will be done with an “FBI bias crimes” checklist in hand and it does not appear to involve any further investigations or new detective work.

It’s hardly reassuring to hear that some university staff without a relevant track record will in the end be brought in as “experts” and paid to write a letter of endorsement.

In an era when relations between the LGBTI community are souring, especially in Sydney, it is particularly concerning that NSW Police seem more concerned about whitewashing their reputation than seeking out the truth.

You can read Professor Tomsen’s paper on anti-gay homicides in New South Wales, from 1980 – 2000 below.

by Prof. Stephen Tomsen

Download (PDF, 559KB)

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)