It was only a couple of years ago that the then-police minister Judith Collins wasn't just bemoaning a lack of respect afforded to police, but blaming the media for spreading the malaise. That's right, apparently the problem was the reporting of police misbehaviour (think Shipton, Schollum, Rickards and Dewar), not to mention publication of Dame Margaret Bazley's damning corruption revelations, and former commissioner Howard Broad's unreserved apology.
That is, not the misconduct itself.
Collins was at least right on one point, though: police credibility has taken a dive over the past 15 years. A self-inflicted dive. And someone needs to tell her it's started to slip again over the past few months, more because of a blundering hierarchy than any rank and file misconduct. From the Urewera Four embarrassment, to the Kim Dotcom overreaction and the absurdly political Teapot Tape nonsense, public confidence in the force is again being strained.
Take the latest episodes involving the Urewera Four. Whatever silliness was happening over in Tuhoe territory, it seems pretty clear now that police dramatically over-egged their hand. As a Twitter colleague mentioned last week, if running around in the bush with guns is to be viewed as a threat to national security, it's a wonder these blokes from the Survive Club haven't been arrested as well. Just as dodgy? Who knows? The key point is that they're not Maori.
But let's not blame the police for this, or at least not the modest foot soldiers among them. They were just following orders; that's what happens in the force. Surely, if anyone should be held responsible it's the politicians and police executives who colluded over the initial operation, and those who later decided to pursue it with such trumped-up charges. By alleging a political motive with such flimsy evidence, they've made a laughing stock of themselves.
Yet still, those in charge continue with the charade. Attorney-General Chris Finlayson even went as far as rebuking Labour MP and former police minister Annette King for mentioning the case in a recent television interview. Reckoned it was off-limits. Really? Then someone better tell every newspaper, radio station and TV network in the country, not to mention the bloggers and citizen journalists amongst us.
Not that the police tendency towards over-reaction has been limited to the Urewera Four. The over-the-top stance towards the arrest of Kim Dotcom and seizure of his assets also carried a strong whiff of political distortion (if not a sycophantic, boot-licking reverence of all things American). It's as if someone's been watching too many movies. As more time passes, and more liberty is granted to Dotcom, the more unease there must be over the strong-arm tactics.
This isn't about the culture of the force, but the culture of those charged with leading it. Certainly, the thought of our politicians having anything to do with police operational matters isn't likely to boost general confidence. On the contrary. The on-going baloney over the so-called Teapot Tapes has only reinforced that. By pursuing the complaint, the police gave it a pre-election gravitas it didn't deserve. Now they've thrown it out, they come across as government stooges.
Collins, (now, ironically, our Minister of Justice) was, and is right. Respect for the police isn't increasing; it's falling. Why? I guess it's because respect is something that has to be earned, not demanded. And all too often over past months the public have been given reason to question their respect towards police decision-making. Rather than blaming the media for this, there simply needs to be an acknowledgment that better judgement is expected.
No point shooting the messenger.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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