Roger Rogerson myth can stand no longer

Roger Rogerson: his arrest marks the final collapse in a spectacular fall from grace. Photo: Janie Barrett

Roger Rogerson: his arrest marks the final collapse in a spectacular fall from grace. Photo: Janie Barrett

Former detective Roger Rogerson.

Former detective Roger Rogerson.

Roger Rogerson can no longer be seen as the larrikin rogue.

It can no longer be argued that the former detective was a misunderstood  "old school" cop who fell foul of a reformist police culture that could not tolerate his unconventional hit-first, ask-questions-later approach.

Not after the past few days' revelations.

Although there were countless examples of bravery, a Dirty-Harry quality, dogged investigative work and a rarely seen devotion to duty during his decades in the force, Rogerson's latest jailing marks the final collapse in a spectacular fall from grace.

Of the many extraordinary things that flow from the tawdry circumstances surrounding the alleged murder of Jamie Gao, apparently a university student-turned-drug runner – it is the demolition of Roger Caleb Rogerson's faintly restored reputation that should be noted.

Rogerson's charging over such serious matters should shatter any illusions about not only his knockabout reputation but also his legacy to policing.

He should now be seen for what he was, and is: a rotten cop who went badly off the rails, and never recovered.

But for the past eight years or so, at least since his release from jail after a second prison term, this is far from the view some would have had of him.

In recent times, Rogerson had staged a comeback. He had a talk show tour that did much to shroud his history of misdeeds – a renaissance of sorts, full of nostalgia, that glossed over and contextualised the pivotal role he played within a corps of corrupt officers.

A group of detectives who had a stranglehold on much that mattered on the streets of Sydney in the 1970s and '80s.

Aided by doing occasional newsroom blogs, and media appearances, he had started to enjoy a reputational resurgence. He almost became mainstream.

In 2009, his book, The Dark Side, was launched by broadcaster Alan Jones at the Iron Duke Hotel in Zetland, a location engrained in the Rogerson folklore. If only cops today were like Rogerson, the streets would be a lot safer, Jones commented, repeating the now all-too-familiar refrain.

Getting Jones on side underscored his comeback; and gave a critical air of legitimacy to claims he had been misunderstood.

Like his one-time talking tour buddy, the late Mark ''Chopper'' Read, Rogerson rode the wave of public sentimentality, and affection, for all things crime and a yearning for a time when things were simpler. True crime, glamourised. Adding a blokey tone to the banter made it seem as if the things they joked about on stage were suddenly excusable, if not explicable. His arrest apparently cut short his latest talking tour in Queensland.

For the past few years, an obliging and under-questioning public went along for the ride – airbrushing his infamy. 

The ABC mini-series Blue Murder, which depicted the underworld wars that swirled around Rogerson, his informant and cohort, Arthur Stanley "Neddy" Smith, and the undercover detective Michael Drury, probably laid the groundwork for the Rogerson revival, in a funny sort of way. And Blue Murder itself was infamous. In the days before the internet and YouTube, the courts banned the show's scheduled broadcast in NSW in 1995 so as not to prejudice Smith's continuing criminal trials.

It would take many years before it ever hit television screens in a legitimate way.

At the time, bootleg copies abounded. With its critical acclaim, the censorship surrounding Blue Murder only added to its lustre, and the cult of personality for Rogerson.  

It was so successful that it gave rise to several imitators, and a new genre in Australian television, which hit its high point (or low point, depending on your perspective) with Underbelly. In turn, its success gave birth to sequels and spin-offs – each one all the more titillating in that they made the criminals - the anti-heroes - the stars.

Policing has changed dramatically since the days Rogerson entered the ranks as a fresh-faced cadet.

Unsigned records of interview – some of them the product of telephone-book interrogations, or worse – are not accepted by the courts. They were back then. A Police Integrity Commission has since been established. In Rogerson's time, police gave lip service, in the main, to investigating their own. More women, more highly educated constables, and officers from multicultural backgrounds, are now part of the force. It was a man's world in Rogerson's era, where physical strength and the barrel of a gun were the calling cards. 

Today's police world is unrecognisable. No doubt, Commissioner Andrew Scipione has considerable work to do to truly reform and modernise the ranks – and there are still reports of corruption among his troops.

But it is hard to comprehend someone with the brashness and swagger of a Rogerson surviving, and thriving now in the way he did then. 

One last point worth making:

Many observers point to the fact that Rogerson, despite being already twice jailed – once for dishonesty, and once for lying about the provenance of $110,000 in cash – was found not guilty in two criminal trials in relation to the Drury case.

It is an important issue.

Drury was shot at close range at his Chatswood home in 1984 in front of his wife and two young daughters just months before he was due to testify in a major drugs trial. During his fraught recovery, and fearing he would not live, Drury gave a dying deposition – accusing Rogerson of offering him a bribe.

The accusation came as a hammer blow to Rogerson – and his corrupt colleagues – at the time, and in truth it was a hit from which he never truly recovered. 

The first case, dealt with in 1984, saw Rogerson charged with attempting to bribe Drury to throw the drugs case involving Melbourne heroin dealer Alan Williams. The second case was the more sinister charge; that he conspired with Christopher Dale Flannery and Williams to murder Drury, a fellow officer.

On both charges, he was acquitted by a jury.

But on the same charge, Williams pleaded guilty in the Supreme Court – and gave evidence to the fact he had arranged for the hit, which at the time marked a new low in Australian police history.

Darren Goodsir is the editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald. His book, Line of Fire (Allen & Unwin), helped form the basis of Blue Murder.

smh.com.au

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