NZ POLITICS DAILY: Can we trust the Police?

Bryce Edwards on the integrity and competence of the New Zealand Police.

The integrity and competence of the New Zealand Police is under intense scrutiny, following the release of the highly critical watchdog report on the police investigation into the Roastbusters scandal. The report raises questions, yet again, of how much faith the public can put in the Police. So far the reactions in the political sphere suggest we shouldn’t place too much confidence in the law enforcement agencies, and that significant reform is required. For some of the more interesting and assertive examples of this, see my blog post Top tweets about the IPCA Roastbusters report

Police incompetence

The IPCA’s report is described today by the Dominion Post newspaper as “A portrait of carelessness and incompetence” – see the editorial, Police failed vulnerable young women. The newspaper says the police incompetence described in the report is “shocking” and “mystifying, especially as most cases were investigated by specialist detectives.” 

For details of the findings you can download the actual Report on Police’s handling of the alleged offending by ‘Roastbusters’, or read excellent summary articles such as Teuila Fuatai’s Roast Busters report reveals errors.

The most surprising example of incompetence highlighted by the report was the apparent police misunderstanding of the law, which is discussed best in Danyl Mclauchlan’s blog post, Two excerpts from the IPCA report into the Roastbusters Critiques the “police logic”. He says: “Here’s what’s amazing. The officers making these decisions were detectives in the Child Protection Unit. They’re a special team trained to ‘exclusively focus’ on child abuse and they either did not understand the law around the age of consent or deliberately misinterpreted it.”

To explain other elements of police incompetence, Barry Soper uses an analogy: “it was a bit like burglaries being committed in the same neighbourhood, with the burglar leaving his calling card at each one of them and the police failing to join the dots, reaching the obvious conclusion that the same person was responsible for lifting the loot” – see: Operation Clover needs a fourth leaf

See also, Murielle Baker’s Radio New Zealand item, IPCA report provokes strong response, which includes the observation of lawyer Catriona Maclennan, that the police “seem to almost think that a complaint and evidence from a victim are required for a prosecution. But that's obviously not the case, or no one would ever be prosecuted for homicide. I think they need to evaluate more carefully where evidence for prosecution could come from."

For these and other reasons, the report is “horrifying” says Toby Manhire in his column Police reform pledges exposed in report.

Police lack of accountability

Police unwillingness to accept and demonstrate full culpability is highlighted in today’s Otago Daily Times editorial, A damning indictment, saying that “The authority's findings are damning and will inevitably open up questions of accountability once again, as well as the adequacy of police procedures and communication with agencies, notably Child, Youth and Family”. The editorial says that Police failure to communicate with the young men involved, and their families, is perhaps the “most chilling” revelation in the report. 

Bloggers are condemning this lack of accountability in stronger terms. Blogger No Right Turn says that “Two of the officers - Officers C and E - appear to have been absolutely crap at their jobs, and are specifically identified as failing to meet the police's investigative standards. Police PR is absolutely silent on what has been done about these officers, and in particular, whether they have been sacked - there's not even the usual bullshit about more training” – see: The RoastBusters report

Similarly, Danyl Mclauchlan complains that, “Police can blandly say they accept criticisms and recommendations and apologise to victims, etc, but if they don’t sack incompetent officers specifically identified as being the cause of this debacle then none of it means anything”. 

An isolated problem, or systemic?

Much of the political debate has been on the question of whether the major problems found in the report constitute an isolated one-off problem, or a wider systemic issue for the force. Police Minister Michael Woodhouse has said he believes it’s a case of individual actions rather than wider problems – see the Herald report, IPCA: Police 'let down' Roast Busters' alleged victims

Rape Prevention Education director Dr Kim McGregor says she “had spoken to top police officers about the issue”, and that "They know that they have pockets in areas where maybe there's an old-school attitude... Some of the heads within certain districts have misogynistic views towards women” – see Murielle Baker’s IPCA report provokes strong response.

McGregor is quoted elsewhere saying that the problem “sounds like a systemic failure”. She points the finger at the police bosses: “I think we need to look higher, look at who was managing that team and why they were not able to liaise the way they should have.  "We just need the police to step up and sort out those pockets of poor practice, sort out any managers, leaders who have misogynistic views, who don't take reports of sexual violence seriously, and that culture needs to come from the top” – see Newswire’s Greens: Roast Busters taskforce needed

In the same article, Police Association president Greg O'Connor points the finger instead at a lack of resources, saying “police's workload was ‘impossible’, meaning systemic failures were inevitable”.

There’s support for O’Connor’s position in Rachel Smalley’s column, Roast Busters case handling a shambles. She says that “a lack of resourcing mean police have a huge workload, and systemic failures are therefore inevitable”.

Blogger No Right Turn also asks about the scale of the problem in the police: “there's an obvious question: if the police were so crap at investigating these cases, are they also crap at others? How many other rapists are going free because police just can't be arsed doing their jobs properly?” – see: The RoastBusters report

The IPCA’s report does actually address this issue, saying that "the Authority has not found any evidence of ongoing and widespread poor practice nationally". But, according to No Right Turn, this response is to be expected, because the IPCA “didn't look. Instead, they leant their mana (such as it is) to protect the reputation of a police force which has manifestly failed to do their job. Because at the end of the day, that's the IPCA's job. Not to get to investigate, not to hold the police to account, but to protect them and the system they are part of. And as long as that is the case, things will never change”.

Police reform demanded

There are increasing calls now for the Government to implement some significant reform of the Police. Much of this comes out of the observation that the institution of the Police appears incapable of reforming itself – an observation actually made by the IPCA itself, in saying that the authority is "disturbed" by the lack of progress by the police in implementing change demanded by previous inquiries. 

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei is therefore leading the charge for an independent taskforce to be established. Turei says: "We have come to the unfortunate conclusion that the police are not capable of making the changes themselves, and they can't be trusted to take seriously the complaints of sexual violence victims in every case” – see Chris Bramwell’s Greens want police culture 'rebuild'. Turei believes “public trust in the police has been completely destroyed”.

Others are expressing skepticism about the police apologies and promises to change. Barry Soper says: “We've seen top cop Mike Bush offering mea culpas, saying they weren't up to their normal high standards and they were disappointed in themselves. How many times have we heard that before?” – see: Operation Clover needs a fourth leaf.

Again, No Right Turn comments: “what's most disturbing is that these are all issues we've seen before, in the Police-rape cases. And despite a commission of inquiry recommending changes, and despite the police saying they have made them, nothing appears to have changed” – see: The RoastBusters report

Making the most elaborate case for reform is Selwyn Manning, who argues that the IPCA report “findings demonstrate how the Police, as an institution, is unable to self-assess what ought to be done about this enduring culture of leniency toward sexual crimes and abuse” – see his blog post, NZ Police Must Be Exorcised of Culture of Sexual Offending Leniency.

Manning calls for “an authority outside the Police club be established and empowered to root out this culture once and for all”. He argues that this is necessary because “These conclusions paint a picture of an arrogant force resistant to outside commands”.

Police issues are being strongly politicised, and more public and parliamentary debate can be expected. Yesterday Parliament went into an urgent debate on the issue, which included some interesting speeches and accounts from Jarcinda Ardern and Catherine Delahunty – see Jo Moir’s MP recounts 'date-rape and assault' as young woman.

There will continue to be pressure on the Government, and especially on whether they are responding adequately to the release of the report. For example, the Herald’s political reporter Adam Bennett ‏(@AdDeville) has tweeted, “Shouldn't Police Min Michael Woodhouse be speaking out more about #Roastbusters report?”

Similarly, drawing attention to the lack of media releases in response, satirist Lyndon Hood ‏(@lyndonhood) has tweeted what, at first, looks like an incomplete sentence: “The following is an ehaustive list of Government press releases on the IPCA report:”

The petitions are also up and running – see Action Station’s Demand Justice for 'Roast Busters' Survivors

Finally, for a fascinating insight into one person’s experience of police culture and why it doesn’t change, you can read former police inspector (and politician) Ross Meurant’s controversial 2011 North and South magazine feature, When the good guys are the bad guys

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