Gordon Campbell on the Police being above the law

A lot of the time, policing is a difficult and unpleasant job and when its done well, the Police get little credit for doing it. However, no-one benefits – including the Police who are trying to do the job properly – when bad policing is insulated from effective punishment. The examples of bad policing are piling up, where Police break the law with impunity, do harm to ordinary citizens and get away with it, scot free.

For example: a police officer in Christchurch in an unmarked car stopped Russell Byfield, could offer no identification when asked for it, followed Byfield home, beat him up so severely that Byfield is still incapacitated and then had him convicted for assault. ACC chimed in and initially refused Byfield compensation, by ruling that his condition was degenerative, rather than caused by the police beating. Two years later, the courts threw out the assault conviction and Byfield has also just won a five year battle for backdated ACC compensation. But the police officer concerned, Ron Greatorex?

Greatorex has never been charged and still works as a senior-ranking police officer in Christchurch. At the time of the assault, Greatorex was a senior member of the police staff safety tactical training team in Christchurch. Police said Greatorex was investigated in 2011, but that “none of the complaints made by Mr Byfield were upheld”, despite a High Court ruling quashing the man’s convictions. Byfield told the Sunday Star-Times the assault had been “horrific” and he was still taking pain medication for a permanent neck injury and he was “in a lot of pain and not sleeping well at all”.

Or what about this case, cited on RNZ this morning in the context of calls to broaden the powers of the Independent Police Conduct Authority. In essence, a preventable police chase that should have been terminated resulted in the chased car hitting a teenager and killing him. No blame was attached to officers who maintained the chase after it had begun to pose a danger to the public, and where there sufficient staff on duty to apprehend the offender by other means. No change either – apparently – to the Police “hot pursuit” policy, which keeps on killing people even though other countries have shown that alternatives to such car chases are available, and are effective. Thirdly, there was the case of the party in Khandallah, where the Police illegally entered a property in Khandallah to close down a party and used excessive force, such that teenager Jakob Christie had his neck broken by a police baton. The Police then failed to investigate the subsequent complaints properly, and leaked aspects of the investigation to the media to discredit its critics. From the IPCA Authority findings:

The Authority received ten complaints from partygoers about the actions of Police the nature of which ranged from Police forcing entry to the house, to allegations that Tactical Policing Unit officers used batons to strike people at the party and forcibly removed them from the house by pushing, shoving and manhandling them. The Authority also received two subsidiary complaints about the leaking of a preliminary Police report to the media and alleged dishonesty in accounts recorded in documents by specific officers. Independent Police Conduct Authority Chair Judge Sir David Carruthers said today although the Tactical Policing Unit was responding to a call from a partygoer concerned about the behaviour of gatecrashers, the decision to close the party down was contrary to law.

“The force used to remove partygoers from the house in an effort to shut down the party was also excessive and contrary to law. The action of a Tactical Policing Unit officer in striking one of the partygoers with a baton, using excessive force, was also contrary to law. Medical records show that this young man sustained a displaced fracture of the C7 spinous process, or a broken neck, as a result of the officer’s action,” Sir David said.

In addition to the main investigation, the Authority conducted a subsidiary investigation which examined the unauthorised disclosure of the Police preliminary report which was sent by an office administrator at Police National Headquarters to a media outlet. The Authority is satisfied that no one else was involved in posting the report to media and that the disclosure of the report was carried out in an effort to discredit a complainant.

As the RNZ report indicates, the IPCA cannot – under its present powers – mount prosecutions against Police officers who have acted illegally. Despite the word “ independent” in its title, the IPCA also employs former Police officers among its staff. Given the high emphasis on collegial loyalty among Police officers – not for nothing has that collegiality been likened to a gang culture – this does not inspire any confidence that the IPCA will act in an impartial fashion when investigating its own. Clearly, there is a need for a body that is not only nominally independent, but is seen to be independent. To re-inforce such a perception – and to underline the independence of the Police officers on its staff – the IPCA’s findings need to be given real teeth, via the power to initiate legal proceedings. Currently, the IPCA looks more like a smokescreen designed to absorb and divert criticism, since it can only make recommendations that continue to fall on deaf ears. There is no mood in government to do things any differently.

Little chance either, of the Police mending their ways. In the wake of the critical IPCA findings on the Jakob Christie case, the Police reaction has been all too typical:

Responding to a damning Independent Police Conduct Authority report, Assistant Commissioner Gran Nicholls said while police had misinterpreted the law they had acted in “good faith”. He also refused to confirm whether police would apologise to Jakob Christie, whose neck was broken while police broke up the Khandallah party in September 2009. “The issue of an apology is something that we are going to explore with Mr Christie,” he said. “It is something we need to do in a private context.” Despite breaking the law by entering the house, Nicholls said none of the 11 officers involved had been, or would be, disciplined.

Nothing to see here, move on. Or else.

Obama Wins a Smashing Victory

On paper, the deal to resolve the US debt ceiling crisis is only a temporary one, but the Republicans have been so bloodied by this beating – the polls had them being held responsible for this crisis by a three to one margin – they will be very unlikely to try this on again. If they do, they will be virtually gifting the 2014 mid-term elections to the Democrats. Paradoxically, while the Republican Party has taken a hammering, the main Tea Party leader – notably, Ted Cruz, the junior Senator from Texas – seems to have emerged from the ruins as a populist hero, for making one last stand at the Alamo against the socialist evils of Obamacare. As one Republican analyst bitterly put it, Ted Cruz has driven the Republican Party through the carwash, but he’s the only one who didn’t get wet.

So far, the most interesting aspect of the final “ deal” is that so little dealing was done. This time, Obama didn’t budge. None of the aspects of Obamacare that the Republicans had targeted were given away to achieve a solution. The Republicans folded. Which, as John Dickerson pointed out on Slate, underlines an interesting aspect of the Obama presidency. Despite all the energy and public goodwill Obama has spent on futile searches for compromise, his positive legacy will consist of those occasions when he pursued his own agenda : on the stimulus package, on Obamacare, and during this 2013 debt crisis. Bi-partisanship simply hasn’t worked ; and the quest for it was never the basis of his mandate. Way back in 2008 when there were such hopes for this presidency, Obama was given a strong mandate for change. The presidency is deceptive in that respect. Ostensibly, the office is meant to be bispartisan in that Mr President governs for all Americans. In reality though, those Presidents seen as great ( eg Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy on civil rights and yes, Reagan) have been those who made their partisan agenda into the new norm for the nation. Obama was elected to lead in that mould, and his only victories have arisen from the very few times that he has acted on that mandate. Even then, on two of those occasions – the stimulus package and this recent crisis – his actions were in response to events that were forced upon him. Faint hope, but maybe he should try to lead from the front, in the short time that’s now left to him.