Queensland police officer who leaked abuse victim's details lodges appeal

Ben Smee
<span>Photograph: Glenn Hunt/AAP</span>
Photograph: Glenn Hunt/AAP

The Queensland police officer who leaked the details of a domestic abuse victim to her violent former partner has lodged an appeal against his suspended prison sentence in a bid to keep his job.

Neil Punchard pleaded guilty to nine counts of computer hacking last month. Punchard is appealing his sentence, including a recorded conviction which likely gives police reasonable grounds to dismiss him.

The appeal comes as the state’s Crime and Corruption Commission begins an inquiry to explore the scope of public sector data misuse.

Ahead of the hearings, senior police and corrective services officers have attempted to frame documented instances of data misuse like the Punchard case as the actions of rogue individuals or instances of voyeurism, rather than the result of documented systemic failures to protect citizens’ data.

Related: 'I knew there would be repercussions': Queensland police hit whistleblower over historic 'misconduct'

The commission was shown evidence on Monday that police employees were caught illegally accessing data more than 200 times last year. The rates of data misuse among police is more than 26 times the rates of other departments with responsibility for protecting large amounts of private personal information.

The CCC has compiled a table showing that in 2018-19 there was one data breach for every 75 police. That compares with one in 322 employees at the transport department and one in 1,993 education department staff.

The number of police misusing computer systems is likely much higher than known, given admissions there is no systemic auditing of computer use, no additional level or protection given to the data of vulnerable people, and that officers are only investigated when a breach is suspected or a complaint is made.

On Friday the police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, blamed the “actions of individuals” for bringing the service “into disrepute”.

In its submission to the inquiry, the state’s corrective services department – which has a rate of data breaches similar to police – said most incidents occurred “through curiosity or misadventure”.

“If information is accessed inappropriately, it is typically to look into the records of high-profile offenders and/or prisoners,” the submission said.

“This behaviour must be viewed as distinct from, yet part of, a continuum that includes in the most serious cases, criminal or serious misconduct activity resulting from the access and disclosure of confidential information. Serious matters of this nature have been, and continue to be, investigated.”

Carroll is scheduled to give evidence to the CCC next week. She will also remain under intense public pressure to sack Punchard, regardless of the outcome of his appeal.

He remains a serving officer, performing non-operational tasks. He is still being paid.

It is understood the outcome of the appeal will ultimately dictate whether Punchard can be sacked or further sanctioned.

Under Queensland police discipline processes it is notoriously difficult to dismiss an officer.

Advocates for the victim, Julie*, are concerned that if the conviction and suspended prison sentence is overturned on appeal, Carroll might not have sufficient grounds to terminate Punchard’s employment.

The case has become a watershed for police data misuse, police attitudes towards domestic violence victims and the way the service treats officers who speak out. On Sunday Guardian Australia published claims made on the record by a serving officer that she had been targeted for reprisal since her decision to testify in a civil case about police data practices.