Vernon Demerest. Clive Howlett-Jones. Grange Callendar. Between 2016 and 2018, these three online figures were responsible for publishing dozens of homophobic, racist, and generally offensive posts on social media. They were trolls. Or, to put it more accurately, they were the creation of one troll pretending to be several.
According to a new report by Victoria’s anti-corruption watchdog, Demerest, Howlett-Jones and Callendar were all in fact the same person: a middle-aged man by the name of Brett Guerin, who also happened to be assistant commissioner of Victoria Police’s Professional Standards Command (PSC) – a unit responsible for overseeing ethical standards within the force and handling complaints about police conduct.
Guerin resigned from this position in 2018, after the same watchdog – the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) – linked him to an online alias that made “crude and coarse” comments about former colleagues and posted racist, sexist and homophobic statements on Facebook and YouTube. He was exposed as the man behind the Facebook profile a year earlier, when he posted almost identical messages on accounts linked to his real name and the name of Vernon Demerest – a fictional character from the 1970 film Airport.
Defending his actions at the time, Guerin claimed that the obscene comments he made online were not reflective of his own personal views, but rather appropriated from fictional characters in books he’d read and made in the voice of a literary character. The statements “reflected the attributes of the character I've created,” he said. “He was a pretentious bigot, a pretentious tosser.”
He further claimed that he made the posts under the pseudonym as a way of dealing with stress and anxiety in his job.
The IBAC investigation, which went for 18 months, found that Guerin’s conduct, albeit “offensive and inappropriate,” was not serious enough to warrant criminal charges. Now, it’s been revealed that the former police officer also used at least two other aliases to troll people while he was both on and off duty.
The Demerest, Howlett-Jones and Callendar accounts made hundreds of social media posts over the two-year period, according to the special IBAC report that was tabled to Australian parliament on Tuesday, some of which commented on Victoria Police matters and some of which used insider knowledge to craft posts that were “often favourable to Victoria Police.”
“I was defending my profession. These people were attacking it,” Guerin told IBAC at the time of his investigation. “They were alleging that [Professional Standards Command] and Victoria Police generally cover up corrupt cops. I know that's not true.”
In response to this week’s IBAC report, the publicly shamed master of disguise suggested he was living proof that, at the end of the day, you can’t hide behind an online avatar. He also doubled down on the claim that his posts were not influenced by “latent racism or homophobia,” and insisted that no bias of any form affected the conduct of his professional duties.
“Mine is a salutary lesson for others that there is, ultimately, no anonymity on the internet and nothing posted should be considered temporary,” Guerin said. “Although my postings on social media were inappropriate, my actions were not criminal and my decisions at both assistant commissioner and superintendent levels were not influenced by any actual bias.”
IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich AM, QC also stated in the IBAC report that the watchdog “did not find any evidence that his decision-making as Assistant Commissioner PSC was compromised by any underlying beliefs or views.”
“However,” he added, “IBAC found he used racist, homophobic and other offensive language to elicit a reaction to the comments he made while using online pseudonyms.”
Off the back of its findings, IBAC recommended that Victoria Police consider psychometric testing – a kind of behavioural test that assesses an individual’s attitudes, behaviours and personality traits, among other things – for officers being considered for leadership roles. It also called on the force to review its social media policy, including the use of pseudonyms. Between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2021, the watchdog received approximately 120 allegations related to Victoria Police employees' use of social media.
IBAC noted, however, that the Victoria Police force has thus far been slow in implementing meaningful reform around social media policy. Although Guerin’s problematic conduct was brought to light as far back as 2018, and the watchdog recommended an update to Victoria Police’s staff social media policy in August 2019, it wasn’t until June 2021 that the new policy was finalised.
Since then, The Police Association of Victoria (TPAV), the state’s police union, has criticised the social media guidelines, claiming the policy goes too far and intrudes upon police officers’ personal freedoms.
“Members have told us that the revised policy is so intrusive into members’ personal use of social media that it virtually prohibits members expressing or supporting a personal political view on any social media platform setting,” said TPAV Secretary Wayne Gatt, according to the union’s monthly journal. “Some have said there is little members could do on social media without offending the policy … A good policy would be short, provide guidance but not restrict a person’s fundamental right to express a ‘personal’ opinion.”
The Victoria Police force said in a statement to VICE that it “acknowledges the findings and will consider the recommendations.”
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