Police chief who tore the mask of corruption from force

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2005, 12:00am

Commissioner stripped the dirty-money men of their power and set in train reforms that led to creation of the ICAC

Charles Sutcliffe, commissioner of police

Former police commissioner Charles Sutcliffe, who died at the weekend in Canada at the age of 89, took to his grave details of how he personally uncovered the corruption of chief superintendent Peter Godber.

It was Sutcliffe who ordered that Godber be investigated for having more money than could be explained by his official salary; and it was Sutcliffe who largely ripped away the mask covering organised corruption in the Royal Hong Kong Police.

It was Sutcliffe who ordered a fiercely resisted restructuring of the force, which crippled the power of the mighty station sergeants who - until that time - had virtually run the police and organised the collection and distribution of the vast flood of dirty money.

His actions ultimately led to the formation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, a violent upheaval in the police, a universal demand that corruption be stifled and, ultimately, to a new outlook about the governance of Hong Kong.

The act that uncovered the ugly face of organised corruption in Hong Kong sprang from a routine query in 1973 by the Royal Bank of Canada in Vancouver.

An account in the name of Peter Fitzroy Godber contained a huge sum of money, which was sitting dormant.

The bank had routine procedures to check such accounts. Godber was listed as a British diplomat living in Hong Kong. The bank asked the British Foreign Office if Godber was still alive and whether he had any instructions.

Eventually, the routine query ended up in Hong Kong. Could police track the missing diplomat? They certainly could. The only Peter Godber in the colony was a chief superintendent of police. The question was forwarded to police headquarters and ended up on the commissioner's desk.

Charles Sutcliffe pondered. Then he pounced.

At the end of the daily morning meeting of senior officers on June 3, 1973, a senior officer read out a terse message in front of all present, including Godber, who was in charge of the traffic branch.

It demanded that Godber explain his hidden wealth.

Meanwhile, raiding parties were searching Godber's office and home, where they found more than $400,000 in cash hidden in his freezer. It was an immense sum in those days.

More inquiries traced a further $2 million in different locations around the world; the total was far more than Godber had earned honestly during his 19 years as a Hong Kong policeman.

The commissioner would never openly disclose the exact circumstances that led to the unmasking of his respected colleague, who had been a hero since he led riot troops through streets shrouded in tear gas during the 1967 disturbances.

Charles Sutcliffe, who retired in 1974, was every inch a professional colonial policeman. But behind the austere figure, a Commander of the British Empire and holder of the Queen's Police Medal and medals from the second world war and Africa, there was a jovial man with a twinkle in his eye.

Sutcliffe died of bladder cancer on Salt Spring Island near Vancouver. His wife of 58 years, Melba, was by his bedside.

Although he left Hong Kong 31 years ago, Sutcliffe is remembered with fondness and affection.

Commissioner Dick Lee Ming-kwai said last night his impression of Sutcliffe was of a straightforward man who was greatly supported by the force.

'He was commissioner when I first came into the force,' Mr Lee said. 'I remember that when I graduated, he personally gave all graduates a briefing on the fight against corruption.'

Born in Britain in 1916, Sutcliffe trained as an analytical chemist, but military service and a stint with the Metropolitan Police in London gave him a taste for adventure. He arrived in Hong Kong in 1963, already a senior police officer with extensive experience in Africa.

He never came to grips with Cantonese. Asked if he spoke Chinese, he gave his flinty smile and replied: 'Alas, no. Only Swahili.'

But there was no joking about his job, in which he believed passionately. He felt it was the force's duty to provide an environment in which the public was protected.

However, he took issue with some laws, such as a total ban on gambling apart from at Happy Valley Racecourse. This, he maintained, turned many thousands of otherwise law-abiding people into criminals.

Sutcliffe persuasively pressed the government for a huge increase in police pay and improved conditions. He argued that you could not ask men to lay down their lives - as they did during the bombing and rioting of 1967 - for $480 a month, and not care for them and their families.

He also bluntly spoke out about what he saw as inadequate sentencing by the courts.

What was the point of police fighting criminals if magistrates and judges were going to hand down sentences that did not deter robbers and burglars?

He was a police commissioner whose actions were ruled by common sense and a quest for justice.

He is survived by Melba, his granddaughter, Natalie, and his five-year-old great-grandson, Aiden.