Steven Wallace: one year on
Steven Wallace: one year on
30 April 2001
It is now a year since Steven Wallace was shot dead by a police officer in Waitara and there is still no sign of justice for his family and friends. The majority of the questions we asked in the first PMA alert about the shooting remain unanswered, despite the subsequent release of a police report into the shooting. Indeed, rather than assisting in the search for answers, the police report made Steven’s death appear even more inexplicable.
There were five immediate questions we asked in that first alert: 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? 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?
Of these, only the third was answered in the police report - Steven was shot four times because that is the way police officers are trained to shoot.
There does not appear to have been any substantive progress in the past year to resolve the longer term issues raised by the shooting. There were three issues we raised in our first alert: racism in the police force, police officers access to guns, and the level of public distrust in the ability of the Police Complaints Authority to do anything other than defend the actions of those police officers against whom complaints have been made. Of these, only the latter has been subject to review, and the outcome of that review does not seem likely to result in a genuinely independent PCA being established any time in the near future.
* Has there been any progress towards justice?
In the past year we have seen the release of the police report into the shooting, but as mentioned above, that did little to answer any of the immediate questions about the shooting. Its conclusion, that Constable Abbot acted lawfully in shooting Steven has generally been perceived as a step away from, rather than towards, justice.
Following the release of the police report in August, there was another long period of official silence about the shooting, so in January we contacted the Police Complaints Authority to enquire as to when some progress might be made in their investigation. The PCA said that until Steven’s whänau had made a decision on whether or not their legal counsel would initiate criminal proceedings in respect of Steven’s death, neither the Coroner’s Inquest nor the PCA Reports could proceed. As we said at the time “It is grossly unfair that the burden of progress in this matter is being portrayed as contingent on action by Steven’s whänau. The restrictive Act which governs the PCA’s activities does put the PCA in an inferior position in relation to the courts when a matter under PCA investigation is also the possible subject of criminal proceedings. However, a PCA inquiry does not necessarily need to wait on a Coroner’s Report - the role of the PCA is to investigate whether or not the police actions which lead to Steven’s death were unlawful; not to determine the manner of death which is undisputed in this instance.”
Roger Mori (New Plymouth Coroner) announced in March that the Coroner’s Inquest would start on 21 May 2001 and run for approximately one week. This seemed a positive step towards progress at last. However following that announcement, lawyers for the three police officers involved in the shooting and for the Police Association applied for an adjournment of the inquest. They are arguing that the Inquest cannot be held while there is a possibility of a private prosecution against the police officers involved as it may be prejudicial to their interests. That application was scheduled to be heard in the New Plymouth Coroner’s Court on Friday 27 April, but has now been adjourned until 21 May.
* When will justice be done?
Based on the experience of the past year, there is not much confidence that there will be justice for Steven, his family and friends in the near future, if at all. It was clear from the TKM Productions documentary about Steven’s death (screened in February) that there is still considerable anguish about Steven’s death and anger about the lack of answers even to the apparently simple question of why he was shot.
Since the TKM documentary was shown, the person referred to as Witness 2 in the police report (the man who Constable Abbot thought he was confronting last 30 April) has begun speaking publicly about a possible answer to that question. He has said that at the time he was interviewed for the police report, he was not aware that Constable Abbot thought it was himself that he had confronted and shot. He has said there was some history between himself and the police officer, and that the officer was afraid of him and maybe resented him because he had successfully eluded police attempts to try him for various offences in the past. Several weeks before Steven’s death, a case brought against Witness 2 by Waitara police officers was dropped because of lack of evidence. An eyewitness to the shooting, Witness 11, stated 'When he [Steven] was at the corner I heard someone say, 'we’ve been after you for a long time Witness 2' - Witness 11’s statement, page 97 of the police report.
It is obvious that there will not be satisfactory answers to the questions raised by Witness 11's statement, nor to the many other questions, unless an independent enquiry is held to determine the circumstances around Steven’s death, or Constable Abbot is brought to Court and tried as any other citizen would have been in this situation. One law for the police and one law for everyone else is simply not acceptable.
Helen Clark was very vocal in the week following the shooting about 'a breakdown in relationships between Mäori and the police in this community [Waitara] and, from what I have seen, in other Taranaki towns' (The Dominion, 5 May 2000). In that same article she is quoted as saying 'We now have to say to police, this is a priority for this Government ... we want action because we can’t have communities where this happens.'
Yet there appears to have been little action from her government in this case. Despite a clear lack of public confidence in the PCA, which as mentioned above has not yet made a report on Steven’s death anyway, the government has not agreed to an independent investigation into the shooting. It is obvious that would have been one immediate step the government could have taken to begin to improve the relationship between Mäori and the police.
There was a report from the Office of the Race Relations Conciliator ‘Relationships in Taranaki’, released last September. This followed requests from people in Taranaki for the Conciliator to visit. That report described the dire economic and social conditions of many people in the region, especially Mäori; institutional and personal racism in Taranaki (and elsewhere in Aotearoa); commented specifically on the perception that police officers are perceived as racist and treat Mäori differently; and made a number of recommendations for ways to move forward.
Some of those recommendations were directed at the government, and it is not clear at this time which, if any, of them have been progressed. The report also recommended the formation of a Taranaki Group (to be supported by the three District Councils) and this has now been meeting for the past three months. Last week the previous Conciliator and the recently appointed Conciliator visited the region and said they were 'supportive in principle of the aims of the Group'.
While such initiatives may have some beneficial effect in the future, it is evident that something more immediate has to be done. As we said in our first alert on Steven’s death: “In a region where injustice is the common theme for Mäori 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.”
The time for healing to begin is long overdue - the government has to act now on this matter.
* What you can do
1) Don’t let Steve’s death be forgotten - keep contacting politicians to demand an independent enquiry, and keep calling for justice through the mass media.
* Contact details for politicians: Phone and fax numbers (all to be prefixed by 04 by those of you out of Wellington) - Helen Clark, Prime Minister, office - tel 471 9998, fax 473 3579; Jim Anderton, Deputy Prime Minister, office - tel 471 9011, fax 495 8441; Phil Goff, Minister of Justice, office - tel 471 9370, fax 495 8444; George Hawkins, Minister of Police, office - tel 470 6563, fax 495 8464; Nandor Tanczos Green Party Justice Spokesperson - tel 470 6712, fax 472 7116. Letters should be addressed to the relevant person and posted (no stamp needed) to Parliament Buildings, Wellington. If you can send us a copy of any correspondence you send, and of replies you receive, it is very helpful for our work.
* Contact details for mass media: Christchurch Press, fax (03) 364 8492, firstname.lastname@example.org; Dominion, fax (04) 4740257; Evening Post, fax; (04) 474 0237, email@example.com; New Zealand Herald, fax (09) 373 6434, firstname.lastname@example.org; Sunday Star Times, fax (09) 309 0258; Press Association, fax (04) 473 7480; Radio New Zealand, fax (04) 473 0185; Listener, fax (09) 360 3831, email@example.com
If you require more information, you can check out the following: The shooting of Steven Wallace, PMA, 8 May 2000, Update: the shooting of Steven Wallace, PMA, 19 June 2000, Further update: the shooting of Steven Wallace, PMA, 28 July 2000, Report on the shooting of Steven Wallace, PMA, 16 August 2000, ‘Fatally wounded at Waitara’: the Police Report, PMA, 18 August 2000, Steven Wallace: An Analysis of the Police Report, Moana Jackson, August 2000, ‘Relationships in Taranaki’: the Race Relations Conciliator, PMA, 25 September 2000, Article on the PCA Review, PMA Newsletter, September 2000, Who remembers Steven Wallace? PMA, 18 January 2001
2) Continue to support Steven’s family - send them a note of sympathy and support, let them know that you have not forgotten Steven and that they are not alone with their grief and longing for justice. Post to the Wallace Whänau, 80 Broadway, Waitara 4320.
3) Support the Steven Wallace Independent Enquiry Fund - the fund was established to help with legal costs and expenses incurred by Steven’s family (including those arising from their private independent investigation into the police actions which resulted in Steven’s death), and to campaign for possible changes to the law and to police procedures. If you wish to make a contribution to the fund, please refer to the updated details on this page.
"This is not just a Waitara tragedy, it was a national tragedy and one we must never allow to occur again." (from the Wallace Whänau Committee statement, June 2000)