The Argus at KellyGang 9/11/1881
We have refrained from any detailed comment upon the report of the Police Commission until the evidence should be officially published. The enormous volume has now appeared, and it is possible to contrast the recommendations of the commission and the testimony upon which it is supposed to be based. We shall proceed at once to notice one of the most remarkable of the findings of the commission, namely, the proposed degradation to the ranks of Sergeant STEELE.
The facts of the case with regard to Sergeant STEELE are happily very simple. The murder of the police by the Kelly gang was known on the 29th October, 1878 , and police parties were at once organised to proceed to various parts of the country. Info rmation, believed to be positive, reached Benalla which was head-quarters, that the murderers were at Rats' Castle, and also there was a rumour that the gang had passed through Wangaratta, as if bound for the Warby Ranges. Sergeant STEELE was sent by Superintendent SADLEIR with a party to search Rats' Castle, and he was ordered to inquire into the Wangaratta rumour, and if he should be convinced that it was well founded, to request Inspector BROOK SMITH, who was stationed in the town, to follow the track. These orders Sergeant STEELE faithfully obeyed. From what he heard he came to the conclusion that the gang had passed through Wangaratta. He communicated that impression to Inspector BROOK SMITH, and he took his own party on to Rats' Castle. The reasons he gives for this course are plain enough –
“8,859. Could you on your own responsibility have pursued those tracks? – If I had disobeyed the orders I had received. There was the possibility it might not have been them.
“8,860. I understood you to say that Mr Sadleir's instructions to you were to proceed in a certain direction, but not to confine you to any particular course? – He informed me that Mr Smith was at Wangaratta with a party of men, and if there was anything in the rumour to send word to Mr Smith, and to go on and carry out my instructions.
“8,861. Then the commission understand that there was a party to fulfil that duty? There was a large party of men at Wangaratta.
"8,862. You think you would not have been at liberty to proceed? – I ran a great risk. If they turned up at Rats' Castle afterwards, and I had disobeyed my instructions, I would have been in a rather peculiar position with my superior officers."
This evidence is fully confirmed by the testimony of Superintendent SADLEIR, to which we must also direct attention. The superintendent says :-
“The first intimation I had of this (the passage of the gang through Wangaratta) appears to have been from Sergeant Steele on the railway station at Benalla, and then only in the shape of a rumour. My instructions to him (Steele) were to halt at Wangaratta, make inquiries there, and if report reliable, to inform Mr Brook Smith, who was supposed to have a strong party there. The instructions under which I acted in sending Sergeant Steele to Beechworth and Rats' Castle were received from Mr Nicolson, who was then on the only certain clue of the Kellys. In fact, it was absolutely certain that they had been at Margery's, and it was so important that police should be placed so as to intercept their probable route from Margery's back to their old haunts, that unless the information at Wangaratta were of a much more positive character, I should not have felt justified in stopping Sergeant Steele's party. Sergeant Steele, who had the same information about Mr Nicolson's movements, would have been still less justified."
It was open to the commission to come to the conclusion that Superintendent SADLEIR was unwise in his orders, or that Inspector BROOK SMITH was dilatory in following up the Wangaratta track; but how, it may be asked, is Sergeant STEELE blameable? In order to inculpate Sergeant STEELE the commissioners have to frame a theory of the duty of sub-officers which is essentially their own. They have arrived at the conclusion that Inspector BROOK SMITH was thoroughly incompetent, and they say " it would be " unjust to lay down as a general principle that an inferior officer may be " punished for the laches of his supeirior, but the circumstances of this " case are exceptional. No one knew " better than Sergeant STEELE the personal peculiarities and unsuitability of " Mr BROOK SMITH for the work, and “to have referred his informant to that officer was simply an attempt to evade responsibility." That is to say, that while the Chief Secretary and the chief commissioner of police maintained Inspector BROOK SMITH in the force, Sergeant STEELE was to set him aside of his own volition on the ground of inefficiency. Superintendent SADLEIR ordered Sergeant STEELE to follow up the Rats' Castle or Margery track, and ordered him to request Inspector SMITH to attend to tho Warby rumour. According to the commission Sergeant STEELE was not only to supersede the inspector, but he was to deliberately disobey the express directions of his superintendent; that superintendent also knowing far more about Inspector BROOK SMITH'S "peculiarities" than the sub-officer could be supposed to do. Where is the common sense of such contentions? Where would discipline be if every sergeant was authorised to supersede any and every inspector at his own discretion? How could a campaign be carried out if every sub- ordinate was at liberty to neglect his own orders, and to undertake the work for which someone else had been detailed?
It must be remembered that the episode in question occurred within a few days of the murders, while the police were hurrying to their stations, and before experience had been acquired. And at that stage of the pursuit it would be manifestly unfair to expect sub-officers to act with that independence of their superiors which was afterwards enjoined upon them. Moreover, Inspector BROOK SMITH had not shown the remissness which certainly seems to have marked his operations in the field .But the commission persist in judging everybody from the standpoint of to-day. In this instance, they say, "What renders his action all the more reprehensible is the fact that upon no occasion throughout the pursuit from the murders at the Wombat to the final affray at Glenrowan, was there presented a more favourable prospect of catching the gang."
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