Gordon Campbell on government arrogance, Ferguson, and Police pursuits

As anyone who’s ever encountered him around Parliament will verify, Chris Finlayson’s arrogance is matched only by his sense of self-esteem. On RNZ this morning though, he exceeded himself on both counts. Right now, National is ramming anti-terrorism measures through Parliament. This legislation will grant the SIS the power to carry out 48 hour bouts of surveillance on anyone without a warrant, and will bestow on government the power to unilaterally revoke anyone’s passports and thus deny them the freedom to travel. Ludicrously, the public has been given exactly one day to make submissions on these major infringements of their civil liberties. Despite Finlayson’s misleading signals on RNZ that these are only stopgaps until next year’s full review of our security laws, the measures in question will not, in fact, expire until 2018.

Why the insane rush? Good question. New Zealand is rated as being under only a “low” risk of threat from terrorism. Britain and Australia face a considerably higher threat, and have bigger pools of would-be jihadis. Even so, both countries are responding to the UN’s request to take action against foreign fighters without suspending the very democratic processes that they are trying to defend. Both countries are allowing weeks and months for submissions, with Britain’s process stretching out for six months, until May next year. There is absolutely no good reason why our government should have chosen to impose its own bizarrely high-handed one-day deadline on submissions. On this point, Finlayson said on RNZ that the government didn’t need “six months of chitchat” – which says everything we’ll ever need to know about Finlayson’s contempt for democratic process.

If Finlayson has a problem with arrogance, Prime Minister John Key seems to have a similarly instinctive aversion to the truth. This week has offered a classic example. On Tuesday, when asked about his most recent contact with Cameron Slater, Key said it had been months. On Wednesday in the House, Key repeated that same line – only to go oops into reverse shortly afterwards, and confess that he’d actually been texting Slater on Monday. Key tried to say that in the House, he’d been confused about the question and though it had been a reference to the inquiry into Judith Collins.

Even if anyone buys that – and in context, there was little reason to do so – how could Key possibly align Tuesday’s assurance that he hadn’t been in contact with Slater for months, with the reality that he’d been texting him less than 24 hours beforehand, and in chatty terms that had no “long time no see” element to them…

One is tempted to cite the old rhyme about liar liar, pants on fire. To which Chris Finlayson would undoubtedly respond that well, as a conflagration, it certainly didn’t impress him.

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Elizabeth Warren, scourge of Wall St
One of Youtube’s gifts to humanity has been to enable us to watch US Senator Elizabeth Warren take on (a) Wall Street bankers, and (b) a US regulatory system that ensures none of them ever go to jail for their crimes. As she puts it: “You steal $100 on Main Street you go to jail. You steal $1,000,000,000 on Wall Street, you get a bonus.” Where is the justice, where is the deterrent effect, she reasonably asks. Warren’s latest salvo at Wall Street immunity can be seen here. This earlier clip is also astonishing. And then there’s this classic clip, that puts in a nutshell the argument for taxation:

Comes now the backlash. In the NYT this week, columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin tried to argue that fear of Elizabeth Warren may be deterring Wall Street bankers from applying for top financial oversight roles in the US government. Yes, I’m sure you’ll agree it would be a terrible thing if Wall St bankers would no longer put themselves forward to become the watchdogs of banking regulation. Salon has a pretty funny article on the hurt feelings that Warren is said to be causing in the tycoon sector. The Salon article concludes:

Moreover, Sorkin writes, “Ms. Warren’s denunciation of Mr. Weiss is a reason many talented people in the private sector are unwilling to take on government roles.” Right — because if anything, our financial regulators include far too many academic experts, community leaders and small bankers, and not nearly enough Wall Street sympathizers. Thankfully, our persecuted plutocrats have Sorkin to defend them against Sen. Warren and her populist pitchforks.

This failure of prosecutorial nerve in the big banking arena came to mind last night, in the wake of the decision not to prosecute the police officer who killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The evidence, as Prime Minister John Key would say, is “contestable.” The police officer has painted a lurid and unverifiable picture of himself as a victim of the “demon” confronting him. Other witnesses claim Brown had his hands up and was offering to surrender. Brown has not been the only young black male killed recently by US Police on dubious grounds, as this article in the current issue of Werewolf eloquently shows.

Unfortunately, the extreme difficulty in holding US police officers to account when they resort to deadly force has now become enshrined in law. A few months ago, the Supreme Court’s verdict in Plumhoff vs Rickards (which was about the Police shooting and killing two people in a fleeing car that had been stopped originally for a faulty headlight) contained this chilling paragraph written by Justice Samuel Alito:

It stands to reason that if police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended.”

In response, the family of the deceased argued that such a ruling would be read as authority for the proposition that vehicular flight creates an automatic justification for the use of virtually unlimited deadly force by Police. The Supreme Court didn’t have a problem with that.

Our version: Police pursuits
Before New Zealanders congratulate themselves on how much more enlightened we are, we should take a look at the death and serious injuries statistics still being racked up here, thanks to NZ Police policy on vehicular pursuits. In Christchurch this week there was a particularly disturbing example. Reportedly, a silver BMW containing people that Police suspected of being involved in drug imports was pursued at high speed by Police, who then “nudged” (according to a witness) or “flipped” (according to the original report in the Press newspaper) the BMW head-on into an oncoming car containing three elderly passengers and put them in hospital, one with critical injuries, another with serious injuries. A police inquiry is now under way. Presumably it will rule on whether it is OK to use ordinary members of the public as a crash barrier.

As RNZ recently reported, Police have recently been abandoning more pursuits, but the number of pursuits leading to crashes continues to rise. The carnage is extraordinary. Since 2003, 60 people have died in crashes linked to police pursuits, and there were 418 crashes linked to such pursuits last year – up from 348, RNZ points out, in 2010. (In both years, 132 people were injured in police pursuits.) The last decade’s death rate stands in striking contrast to the six year period 1997-2002, when only six people died in the same circumstances.

Clearly, the Police are wary of creating a perverse incentive for suspects to speed away from Police, in the belief they won’t be pursued. Yet if identity can be established by other means, this need not mean the fleeing suspect will escape justice. It may just mean that they – or other members of the public – won’t be killed or seriously injured over relative trivialities. As a US expert cited in the RNZ report pointed out, it comes down to who police are trying to catch:

“Are you catching speeders or are you catching murderers, armed robbers and rapists? For the most part I think you’re catching [and killing] speeders and kids making stupid decisions.” A higher percentage of pursuits being abandoned was a good sign, but New Zealand police should consider further restrictions, chasing only violent criminals, he said.

Ultimately, the accounts of the BMW chase in Christchurch form a solid argument against arming our Police. The thought of excitable Police hot in pursuit and shooting in public places at the fleeing suspect – even if only to shoot out their tyres – is a fairly hair-raising prospect. Right now, Police pursuits are killing and injuring enough people with cars alone.