Thursday, November 11, 2004

Screaming for help

National MP Tony Ryall had asked a question in Parliament about whether a caller had to be "screaming down the phone" before the police would respond. "The answer to that is no, sir, but it helps," Police Commissioner Rob Robinson told the committee.

In the good old days, yelling for help usually got the neighbours. Now, it seems, it won't even work on the cops. It's one more sad inditement on the state of the police.

Since former Commissioner Peter Doone had a word on Oriental Bay, the police have faced a barrage of bad PR. Remember Doone? Pulled over by a rookie for driving without the lights on, Doone's partner wasn't spoken to or breath tested after Doone approached him and had a word or two.

In a somewhat similar twist of happenstance last year, a Tauranga policeman had his drink-driving charge thrown out when police withheld evidence. The policeman, son of a Tauranga Crown Prosecutor, was pulled over and breath tested at almost twice the legal limit. He was pulled over by an out-of-town booze-buster who didn't know a local cop from a yokel sop. Constable Matthew Elliott, stood down on full pay since the original charges were brought, will go back to court next month to face the same drink-driving charges.

Then there's the rape allegations here, here, here and here. An inquiry into police conduct is currently on hold while they work out whether past and present police officers should face criminal charges for rape.

The latest faux-pas, involving a genuine Damsel in Distress, a 111 operator, and a taxi, doesn't help either. Then there's BOP girl Maggie Bentley, who rang for help and got the operator. When the top cop suggests screaming on an emergency call, to underline the fact that there is an emergency happening, something is wrong.

It's not surprising that Act Justice Spokesperson Stephen Franks has jumped into the barrel, tempted to draft a "Make My Day" Amendment to the Crimes Act, making provocation an allowable defence.

Dagg knows, I can see where he's coming from. Known as the "Baddies' Buddy", my father wasn't paranoid, he knew people who were out to get him. In the days before voicemail and message services, we answered the home phone hoping it wasn't another death threat. My father preferred the minimum-length pump-action shotgun under the bed.

"A shotgun's much more useful than a small-bore gun," Dad used to say. "You can aim at their legs and it probably won't kill them. They might even be able to walk out of hospital. With a .22 you have to aim at something vital." He also showed me how to make buckshot cartridges with the shell packer at home. "If you can't get buckshot, rock salt or pepper works well too."

These bits of information gave me no comfort at all when walking a girlfriend up the driveway at home one night got me face-to-barrel with any one of Dad's cartridge recipes, as he hung out the bedroom window with the safety (hopefully) on.

Aye, there's the rub. As Michael Moore pointed out so subjectively in Bowling For Columbine, lots of times guns end up aimed at the wrong things. So although I do have some sympathy for Stephen Franks' call for provocation as defence, I'd say be like a Canadian and leave the guns in the gun rack.

If we're not going to resort to vigilantism, it has to come back to the cops.

Let's go widescreen for a moment. The police are entrusted to protect citizens and uphold the law of the land. To achieve this, they are armed with a state-given monopoly on force. That use of force is tempered by the public level of trust and respect for the office. That respect and trust has diminished drastically in the light of damning revelations on how our police operate.

On the other side of the coin, I'd bloody hate being a cop. Like a doctor who only sees the sick or the unfortunate, cops are constantly faced with the worst elements of humanity. Burglars and wife-beaters are a cop's daily bread. Given 19 weeks of intensive training and put on the streets, these humans work the dirtiest shifts in a highly antisocial environment. I would not be surprised if off-duty cops spent a lot of their spare time on alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with the job.

Constantly on the look-out for new recruits, the police keep getting handed more laws to enforce with increasingly stretched resources. Many experienced cops PERFed out of the force or went to Queensland with better pay and conditions, gutting the police of some serious talent. Meanwhile, Parliament just keeps introducing more ways to suck up a cop's time, be it speed cameras, dope fiends or smoking in bars. While all these legislative toys keep the control freaks happy, the core business of protecting the public has become lost in the haze.

Non-cops are hired to look after police prison cells, parking wardens ask for more hammers to beat motorists with, city councils create more inspectors with quasi-police functions. The monopoly of force is spreading from the police to any civil servant with a Napoleon complex.

What can be done? First up, we could look at pruning the laws. This is a hard ask of any government. After all, making more laws is their raison d'etre. But every law should be examined for merit and priority, from stupid bike helmet laws to Chairman Jim's attack on air fresheners.

Secondly, we could look to the privately-run Auckland Remand Centre for ideas on how to lower re-offending levels. Not only would this lower the police workload, it would minimise the need to build more prisons, cut back the court backlog, and help more Kiwis stay out of trouble. Restorative justice and more creative sentencing options could address this too.

Thirdly, police should receive more training, better support and clearer objectives. It might be worth separating police and traffic duties once more, allowing a hint of specialisation and pride to creep back in to the job. Again, it is a matter of prioritisation. Which poses a greater public concern; women crying for a cop to help them out of mortal danger, or ticketing some sucker for not wearing their seatbelt?

Finally, the Police Complaints Authority should be disbanded and an oversight committee in the Executive or Judiciary branches of government should watch our watchmen. The present appeal system, where citizens complain about police to police, lacks independence. The public needs a clear indication that if police break the law or abuse their privilege of force, the complaint is dealt with thoroughly and the problem fixed quickly.