The shooting of Steven Wallace
The shooting of Steven Wallace
8 May 2000
Steven Wallace was shot dead by a police officer over a week ago after smashing windows with a baseball bat and golf club. There is still no official explanation as to why this happened. Police spokespersons have said that the police homicide enquiry may take several weeks; while the Police Complaints Authority enquiry may take several months. There are serious discrepancies between the reports from witnesses and the brief statement issued by the police about what happened at the time of the shooting.
Given the anguish of Steven’s family and friends, and the depth of public concern about the shooting, surely by now the police have sufficient evidence to answer the most pressing questions. Why did police officers decide to arm themselves with guns when Steven was obviously not carrying a firearm himself ? Why didn’t they choose another option to stop him - for example, by waiting for the dog unit which was apparently on its way from New Plymouth ? Why was Steven shot four times ? Why were local people who tried to offer him comfort and assistance as he lay bleeding and dying in the street for 20 minutes prevented by the police from going near him ? Why is this young man dead ?
In a region where injustice is the common theme for Maori stretching back more than one hundred and fifty years through land confiscation, peaceful resistance which ended in incarceration and death for some, there is a strong feeling that this is another atrocity to add to a long list.
Steven’s death is not seen as a tragedy, it is seen as an outrage. In the short term, the answers to the questions above have to be forthcoming, and justice has to be found for the loss this shooting has brought to Steven’s family and friends. Without this there is no chance whatsoever for healing even to begin.
In the longer term, the shooting raises issues which are going to have be dealt with. Among these are:
* Racism in the police force - some have pointed to the fact that the police officer involved is Maori, as though that somehow takes racism out of the situation. The only relevance this has to the shooting is that it may offer the possibility of marae-based justice. It ignores that fact that police officers, be they Maori, Pakeha or Tau-iwi, are working within a police culture which has racist ideas and operates in a prejudiced way, within a society which is racist. Reference has been made in recent days to Te Puni Kokiri reports on this matter. In 1988 Moana Jackson was commissioned by the Ministry of Justice to write a report on Maori and the Criminal Justice system. His comprehensive report outlined the problems, and made extensive recommendations as to how the situation could be improved. Twelve years later those recommendations have not been implemented.
* Police officers access to guns - there seems to be general public acceptance that when someone is armed with firearms or holding hostages, armed police will be deployed to deal with them. Neither of these scenarios applied to Steven Wallace. The shooting again raises the likelihood that when police officers have access to guns, this acts in itself to deter them from thinking creatively about other options to deal with the situation. The issue of police access to guns, the protocols for how they use them, the flexibility of their response when they are armed, and the contradiction between their being trained to shoot at the largest body mass and their legal obligation to use minimum force in detaining someone must be revisited urgently.
* Distrust in the Police Complaints Authority - there is considerable distrust in the ability of the PCA to do anything other than defend the actions of those police officers against whom complaints have been made. Just yesterday Justice Young’s ruling was made public in the court case David Small had taken against the police for the search of his home in 1996. Both the PCA and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security had ‘investigated’ the break-in, neither found anything wrong with it. Justice Young on the other hand concluded that the search was unjustified ‘political harassment' and awarded David Small $20,000 compensation. With regard to the extent of the PCA’s ‘investigation’ of this complaint, only one of the eight police officers who gave evidence in the hearing of this case confirmed that he had been interviewed during the PCA investigation.
If the PCA could not properly investigate this complaint nor find any grounds for concern in this instance, a comparatively trivial incident when compared to the taking of a human life, then the belief that they will do no better in investigating the shooting of Steven Wallace appears well-founded.
There is also the issue of the length of time the PCA takes to deal with complaints - there have been reports that it will take a minimum of several months in this case, and that is clearly not acceptable. This together with the distrust of the PCA, will hopefully result in sufficient pressure on the government to set up a Complaints Authority which is clearly seen as independent from the police force and which the public has confidence will deliver justice to those who have been wronged by the actions of police officers.
The Steven Wallace Fund - in the belief that they may not find justice for their loss through either the police homicide investigation or the PCA investigation, a fund has been set up to assist Steven’s family with legal fees and investigation costs. If you wish to make a contribution to this fund, please refer to the updated details on this page.