Outgoing Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson
Outgoing Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson Nev Madsen

Top cop looks back on fine career

THE Daniel Morcombe tragedy that haunted Queensland's top cop will stay forefront in his mind even in retirement.

Outgoing Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson regularly vowed he would never let the police service give up on finding the 13-year-old Sunshine Coast boy and bring his perpetrators to justice.

"There were always two questions - where is Daniel and who is responsible," he said.

"We've been able to answer the first one, Daniel's remains have been found, and the second one, a person has been charged and is before the courts.

"I'm very grateful to all of the police involved in that investigation, for their commitment and dedication, without in any way presuming anything about it."

Mr Atkinson said he had also admired Bruce and Denise Morcombe's "extraordinary character resilience and commitment" throughout the almost nine years since Daniel's disappearance while waiting for a bus.

"That's one I will continue to watch with obvious interest as to how that unfolds," he said.
Sian Kingi, Larry and Yasi are three other names etched on the commissioner's career and ones he will never forget.

While he was a detective in Noosa, Mr Atkinson led the investigation into the rape and murder of schoolgirl Sian Kingi, eventually achieving the much adulated arrest of Valmae Beck and Barry Watts.

"You would have thought Friday 5.30pm on November 27 in Noosa was a pretty safe place for a 12-year-old girl to be," he said.

"I think any police officer, when they reflect on their career, especially if they've been around as long as I have, there'll be things that jump out at you.

"Who could ever forget Cyclone Larry and the other disasters, finishing with Cyclone Yasi?"
Similarly, January 10, 2011, is a haunting date that will cause Mr Atkinson to reflect every year on the disaster that struck the Lockyer Valley.

"We know in Queensland there can be floods and cyclones," he said.

"We'll get flooding if there's excessively heavy rainfall and, in some cases, some of the towns like St George and Condamine will get days of warning before the place floods.

"(But) those events on January 10 in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, that was unknown, unpredicted, unexpected.

"To fly over that in a helicopter and see those five watercourses converge through the Lockyer Valley and on Grantham. It looked as though there'd been a giant bulldozer that had just calved out (what had been creeks).

"Houses that had been right away from the creek were teetering on the edge of this crevice.

"The primary role of police is to be part of the emergency services to keep people safe but no one knew where it was gong to hit next. It was terrible.

"We all know now what happened, there's been inquiries and examinations, but at the time, it was just extraordinary."

At the end of this month, Mr Atkinson will end his police career, almost to the day, after 44 years as an officer and 12 years in the top job.

He has spent much of his career working in regional Queensland - including Cairns, Goondiwindi, Tewantin, Noosa and Maroochydore - after beginning as a constable in Brisbane's eastern suburbs in 1968.

"My preference was policing in the country," he said.

"I really liked being a detective in a smaller place where you had a sense of ownership, being able to see and be involved in the community.

"It was just a fit for me to do that.

"For about 10 years I lived beside a police station and was on-call 24/7 which I didn't mind in the slightest."


Police corruption in Brisbane pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry was not obvious to police in regional areas at the time but Mr Atkinson said its discovery resulted in a major overhaul of regional policing in Queensland.


He said there was a general sense that something "a bit fishy" was going on, but the details were "pretty much locked down ... almost like a secret society".

"I'm not saying the corruption that existed in Brisbane in terms of pay-offs that occurred to protect things never occurred in the country as well but on a lesser scale, I imagine it did, but certainly I wasn't directly aware of anything," he said.

"What (Tony) Fitzgerald identified (during a two-year judicial inquiry into police and government corruption) was that the corruption which had festered in the organisation was able to exist for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that there was total centralised control.

"So Fitzgerald recommended that the eight geographic regions have a degree of autonomy in terms of their management."

The assistant commissioner regional roles were born as a result.

Being a police officer in Queensland as public confidence in the service was eroding at a rapid rate was "terrible" but Mr Atkinson said, with hindsight, everyone realised it had to happen.

"The organisation was sick and there's no point putting Bandaids on it," he said.

"It needed major surgery, the major surgery was painful but it was necessary.

"I believe we've moved on from that and I think at the moment public confidence in us and support for us is okay but we should never take that for granted.

"We have to treat the public well.

"If you go home tonight and you need an electrician, you can go to the Yellow Pages and there's hundreds of them but if you go home tonight and your home's broken into there's only one police department you can call.

"Just because we're the only police department doesn't mean we shouldn't try to deliver the best possible service that we can."

Mr Atkinson said there were huge changes post-Fitzgerald Inquiry within the organisation, from a belief in higher education, the promotional system, to women and multiculturalism.

He said accountability, systems and external oversight were among the areas that changed dramatically.

"Internally, as an organisation, I don't think there's anything the same as it was.

"For example, Fitzgerald said one of the biggest problems was verballing, that is police saying someone made a confession when they didn't.

"There wouldn't have been a claim of verballing in the past five to 10 years, not even a claim of it."

Despite all the changes the commissioner has seen, it is Queensland's road toll, the crashes the sometimes take out whole families or three generations in an instant, that plagues him daily.

"Every morning we discuss the road toll. As at today it's 225 and 19 over where it was last year," he said on Monday.

Mr Atkinson noted since statistical data recording began in 1952 the state's road toll peaked at 638 people killed on Queensland roads in 1973, almost two a day.

He said the rate of death was 32 per 100,000 people in Queensland when there was roughly a million people driving.

"Fast track forward to 2010 when 249 people were killed on Queensland roads but the rate of deaths, which is a more important measure, was down to 5.5 from 32," he said.

"Now we have three million licensed drivers and four million vehicles.

"Sometimes people have this nostalgic look into the past and say 30 years ago life was a lot better but your chances of being killed on the roads were a lot greater.

"I do think people's behaviour is changing - two examples are drinking and speed.

"When I joined the police department, drinking and driving was socially acceptable.

"If the police arrested someone for drink-driving, that person was seen as a victim and the police were the bad guys and people felt sorry for you.

"Now you get picked up for drink-driving, pretty much people say "you boofhead you shouldn't be on the road if you're full, you should know better".

"When speed cameras came in, the road toll dropped by 81 to 279 and that was one of the few times the road toll was under 300.

"In 2010, that's when the covert speed cameras came in, again people slowed down and ironically the road toll dropped by 81 again, from 330 to 249.

"That can't be a coincidence.

"What that shows is that behaviour can change and it can make a difference."

Mr Atkinson said two commissioners before him did a great job making changes in the organisation so it would be free of systematic organised corruption that had plagued it.

He said that meant he could return focus to the service's core business - keeping people safe and protecting their assets - in his term.

Mr Atkinson said his team also focused on major events like schoolies and CHOGM - the first meeting of international leaders post 9-11 - and being prepared for unplanned events, such as natural disasters

"Our people embraced that with quite remarkable results," he said.

"Car theft halved over 10 years. Break-and-enters have gone from 73,000 a year down to 43,000 in 10 years of population and building growth.

"You're at less risk now of being a victim of homicide than you were 30 years ago. I think because of the work that's been done in the area of domestic violence.

"But I don't claim any of that - everyone contributes and everyone's contribution is valuable."

Mr Atkinson said he hoped the police department would be sufficiently resourced to keep pace with the state's growth and technology and he looked forward to seeing a new police academy come to fruition.

He said he was also excited about emerging technologies - such as GPS tracking and engine immobilisers - which could eradicate car thefts and potentially drink-driving.

"I wish Ian Stewart, my successor, the very best," he said.

"While it's important when you retire to let go, obviously you couldn't possibly after 44 years lose interest in something you've been involved with for so long.

"But I think we're in good shape and I think we're well positioned for the future."