'Standard operating procedure' a cop-out

By MICHAEL LAWS

Last updated 17:16 14/06/2008

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Is the thin blue line yellow?

In the immediate wake of the shooting of Navtej Singh one might reasonably believe so. Because the initial police response after receiving their emergency summons seems to condemn the police as institutional cowards.

There can be no excuse that "standard operating procedure" negates the required Good Samaritan duty. We would condemn a stranger for not immediately offering assistance. How much worse is it then, that those we pay to protect the public essentially refuse to do so. At least, until they're ready.

Indeed there was an element of not simply the PC, but OSH, in the Manurewa police's studied inertia last Saturday night. They first wanted to ensure that they were not in personal danger before Navtej Singh was attended. That the gunman was no longer in the vicinity. That they were armed. And that they had a strategy.

While they went through this process, they ensured that an available ambulance similarly did not attend Singh. They played the incident by the rules. Their own.

And yet don't we pay our taxes so that the police actually do risk danger? So that they protect us and our families from bad people? So that they confront and apprehend wrongdoers? In essence, don't we pay our police to be heroes?

Obviously not. Or not enough. Last Saturday night the Manurewa police deemed themselves under-resourced to do their job. Their most immediate units lacked the guns, the plan and the balls to get to Navtej.

Instead they employed their "standard operating procedure" just another phrase for the ongoing emasculation of our police. It may have taken years of poor policy and worse leadership, aided and abetted by wet judges and civil libertarians. But the police, last Saturday night, were still gelded goodies.

This Sunday morning we are still no closer to a proper answer to police prissiness. One would have thought that standard operating procedure in Manurewa, particularly given the spate of armed robberies, was to ensure that front-line police in squad cars had instant access to arms. One might have thought that police procedure would have envisaged exactly the outcome at Riverton Liquor given the numerous precedents. It was inevitable someone was going to be shot.

South Auckland is the badlands of New Zealand. It is a place that has been created by both neglect and liberal handwringing good parts of it hostage to gangs, drugs and nihilism. It is not a place that you choose to live. It is a place that you end up.

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And it has been this way for at least two decades. South Auckland did not just arrive. It was created. There were television documentaries and in-depth media coverage on the mean streets of Mangere and Manurewa in the mid-1980s. All that has happened in the past 20 years is that the infestation has intensified and spread.

So I empathise with those cops who draw the short straw and the posting to this tiger country. Their job is a steady stream of reactive policing of the worst elements in our society. They have neither the respect nor the powers to make a difference. They just do. Their mantra seems to be: do your job as best you can. But don't get hurt.

You can understand such thinking in an organisation that knows it is losing. It is a defeatist attitude, yes, but one for which we must also take the blame. Our society underequips its police for the job we expect them to do.

It has taken years to issue them with stab-proof vests. The police commissioner is still sitting on his ample rear after the Taser trial and still refusing to give permission to standard-issue this non-lethal deterrent. Police are not allowed to routinely arm themselves in South Auckland especially at night when they must confront the most violent detritus of our society.

Neither do they have access to secure communications. Any crim can purchase a police scanner and virtually every crim and boy racer does. If the police want to communicate privately then they must use their own cellphones. Hands-free, of course. The government has repeatedly refused to provide them with the ability to converse with each other without half the country listening in.

And then there is the legislation and judicial policy that maximises the rights of bad people. Gangs are still not outlawed in this country despite their overt and obvious criminal intent. Again, one might accuse the police of an institutional cowardice in managing rather than policing these nefarious nasties. But until politicians declare them illegal, what options do cops have?

Then there is the leadership of the police itself. Uninspiring and insipid led by a commissioner who fits the government's political agenda and apologises for a textbook raid of pseudo-anarchists waving around guns.

Then there's the deputy police commissioner who isn't actually a sworn police officer and was recruited direct from the wilds of National Archives. Ah yes, as everyone knows, librarians are a tough bunch.

Despite all these defects and drawbacks, the public still has an expectation of police unmatched by their performance. We expected them to immediately rush to Singh's side and assist the dying man. We did not expect them to assure their own safety first.

This century has been a disaster for police. They have seen their public esteem plummet after being beset by crisis after crisis. But the silent majority has never truly lost their faith. They still associate the uniform with a kind of institutional heroism. Men and women doing a dirty job on behalf of us all. Society's defence against ill and anarchism.

Last Saturday night shook that confidence more than any rape trial or beating in the cells will ever do. Last Saturday night, we saw a scared police scared for themselves. It is an image that will linger.

m.laws@radiolive.co.nz

- Sunday Star Times

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