Early in The Skull I wrote how a former Deputy Commissioner Bob Falconer said either Brian Murphy was “the most corrupt and dangerous man ever to be a member of Victoria Police or the most maligned. I don’t know which.”
It’s a dichotomy that troubled me ever since Falconer passed the comment. Falconer was part of a Vic Pol team that investigated Murphy and his protégé Paul Higgins in the early 1980s for involvement in Melbourne’s brothel wars. Vic Pol’s investigations would eventually land Higgins in jail for five years, while Murphy escaped without charge. That a competent investigator like Falconer could come to this ambivalent position was daunting to say the least. How was I to trip up Murphy if the State with all its resources and coercive power could not? It suggested Murphy had a power and cunning that went far beyond the norm.
If I were pressed, I would agree that Murphy was “corrupt and dangerous” but not in the conventional sense of the phrase. No-one I spoke to had any first hand accounts of him copping a quid. Second hand accounts tended to disintegrate upon investigation. His lifestyle does not suggest a man living beyond his means. But I would say that he did manage to “corrupt” the system he worked under. However, as another colleague told me, Murphy’s methods may have appalled him but whatever he did was always in the service of the community. It might not have always been lawful but justice in the extra-legal sense is not always clear cut. That’s why the second half of the book is called Ways and Means, back then the public generally did not worry about the methods, only the results. That has all changed today.
It’s interesting that many complain police have lost the battle for the streets. People are no longer safe at night, they can’t walk home alone without fear. Despite all the public surveillance technology, few offenders are brought to book for random assaults and thefts. And putting them in jail is often a shattering experience for the victim in court. It’s no wonder then that people fondly remember the days when police inspired fear and respect in the criminal classes. If they lost in court, they would square up with the villain later on. As brutal as it seems now, there was a deterrence factor that was undeniable. If you wanted to walk the streets in Murphy’s district you had to submit to his power.
I wonder how a modern day Murphy would fare today. Would he be drummed out of the force, even jailed for his methods? Or would he survive in any era, able to adapt to changing circumstances. I wonder whether we need such officers today.