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Only drastic reform will banish
public's fear of brute force

8 February 2004

"Don't you touch him because we'll be watching for cuts and bruises," a young Maori woman screamed at police outside Waitangi's Te Tii Marae.

And she maintained a barrage of abuse as her young friend, clad in a blue tino rangatiratanga T-shirt, was flung face-first to the ground, handcuffed, and forced into an unmarked police car for throwing dirt at National Party leader Don Brash.

That young woman is a reminder to mainstream New Zealand - a large part of our population fears and distrusts the police. Those emotions, perhaps, rose closer to the surface for other New Zealanders in the past week as they read of accusations of police sweeping under the carpet sex crime allegations against their blue-uniformed colleagues.

The force is aware it has a particular problem earning the trust of Maori, who are more likely than Pakeha to be stopped by police, and many of whom remain unhappy at the police shooting of Waitara man Steven Wallace in 2000.

The refusal of police to prosecute Constable Keith Abbott for that shooting was a factor in a government move to set in place a new, independent police complaints authority, via a law to be passed in coming months.

And it hastened moves to improve police relations and liaison with iwi and other Maori groups - an initiative spearheaded, until last week, by assistant commissioner Clint Rickards.

Rickards would likely have reached the heady heights of deputy commissioner in 2000 but for Prime Minister Helen Clark being warned of anonymous letters alleging sexual offending.

This was a risk-averse Clark, who the same year sacked Maori Affairs Minister Dover Samuels because, she said, he could not do his job with allegations of sex with a young dependent "swirling around".

The way she last week described her handling of the Rickards case had a familiar ring to it: "From the point of view of the government, if there are any allegations of rot in the box of apples you deal with it, and quickly."

She sacked Samuels without awaiting the result of a police investigation - an investigation that cleared him. She refused Rickards the promotion without demanding a proper inquiry - hardly due process either - but only time will tell whether the man whose career she curtailed was a rapist, or an innocent man as he strongly insists.

Rickards has been stood down as police reopen the criminal investigation into allegations he took part in the pack rape of Louise Nicholas and the government - thanks to Nicholas and the investigations of journalist Philip Kitchin - has seemingly accepted that its tinkering with the police and Police Complaints Authority may not go far enough.

The revamped authority, though bigger and better equipped to investigate allegations against police, will remain secretive and largely toothless.

The law and order select committee reported back to parliament only a week before Christmas, dismissing a Dunedin Community Law Centre submission that the authority should make binding recommendations on police.

"We consider that police operations would be severely affected if an outside body, such as the authority, were in a position to directly control the practices and procedures that the police adopt," the government-chaired committee said.

When Clark announced a commission of inquiry encompassing the culture within the police, she left the door open to an Australian-style director of public prosecutions to make decisions too tough for police.

She has been accused of a knee-jerk reaction to one isolated case. But some Kiwis - like the young Maori protesters at Waitangi - might suggest the Louise Nicholas case was simply the wake-up call mainstream New Zealand needed.

Undoubtedly, most of our boys and girls in blue throw themselves wholeheartedly into doing the best job they can.

But neither the police, nor the country as a whole, can afford to have an entire section of the community in fear of the police.

Jonathan Milne
Sunday Star Times © Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2004

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