Prevention beats cure - watchdog

Horror deaths and violent incidents linked to police actions make the news headlines.

From fatal police pursuits to shot offenders and bashed partygoers, myriad incidents are scrutinised every year by the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

It deals with complaints about misconduct or neglect of duty by police employees and about police practices, policies or procedures.

It also investigates deaths or serious harm caused by police, and monitors the safety of police cells. Sometimes it finds police have erred, sometimes it finds their actions are justified.

But chairman Judge Sir David Carruthers is steering the authority away from the blame game. "We're trying to move the organisation to a much more preventive approach, because it seems hardly worthwhile just to say: Oh this went wrong and these are the people responsible.

"It's much more worthwhile to think: Here are the lessons that have been learned from it and we can prevent something like this happening again."

In the year to July last year, the authority received 1997 complaints and opened 62 investigations.

Since taking the authority's helm two years ago, Carruthers has guided it to start examining common themes, and to work with police to change training, practices and policies so such tragedies and complaints are avoided.

A prime example is the police's handling of out-of-control parties, its review of which was made public on Thursday.

The authority regularly receives complaints about police intervention at private parties or gatherings, Carruthers says.

It has examined the police's legal powers and their methods when shutting down out-of-control parties, highlighting eight problem parties from around New Zealand in the past five years, including five in 2013.

One was in the Wellington suburb of Khandallah in September 2009, where then-19-year-old Jakob Christie's neck was broken by a baton-wielding officer. Seven people were arrested and 10 people later complained about police brutality.

The authority investigated and its report, released last October, harshly criticised police for using excessive force and breaking the law. Last week's review expresses sympathy for police facing out-of-control parties, where they encounter crowds of intoxicated people, fights, property damage, verbal abuse and bottle-throwing partygoers.

However, some cases showed police officers misunderstood their legal powers to enter properties and to remove partygoers. As a result, police have created a new public order policing policy.

Another grim example of a theme the authority frequently investigates is "fleeing driver syndrome". "Quite often, youngsters steal a car or be in a car. They'll be pursued because they're speeding or something, and at the end of it, someone's dead and utterly disproportionate to what the event was," Carruthers says.

The authority has begun working with police to develop a changed response to fleeing drivers "so we don't end up getting dramatic tragic consequences from what was quite minor offending to start with", Carruthers says. In 2012, the authority published two other thematic reviews.

It teamed up with the Human Rights Commission and Children's Commissioner to review the policy of young people in custody. It also examined deaths in police custody - 27 over the decade to 2010.

Carruthers, a well-known advocate of restorative justice, is also pushing for early resolution of police interventions that have gone wrong.

"If there is a mistake made and someone comes around and says: yesterday, it went really badly wrong and we're sorry; often that's all people want to hear.

"That we're training someone and it won't happen again . . .

"People are pretty understanding when there are exceptional circumstances.

"They're not understanding when it's months later and you can't expect that."

Not all apologies are swift.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush's apology to Tuhoe two weeks ago came nearly seven years later after unlawful police actions during the Urewera raids in 2007.

However, Carruthers says police wanted to apologise soon after the raids but delayed until the iwi was ready.

The authority's report, released in May last year, found the police were "reasonable and justified" in their operation but criticised some of their actions and recommended police start to build bridges with the iwi.

"A lot of folk were disturbed by images of heavily-armoured police holding up cars and so forth, and in a little country like this, it's not what we want to see," Carruthers says.

Regardless, he believes New Zealand's police force is in great shape, crediting the country's culture of fairness for helping to prevent corruption. As proof, New Zealand has claimed first or first equal in Transparency International's corruption perceptions index for the past five years.

"Things are always going to go wrong with police because they're right at the edge of tough stuff, including drugs and gangs and the rest of it."

However, a shift towards prevention will provide good results for the country, he says.

"I'd like to see us working like Kiwis, which is co-operating well, more inclusively and helping together to produce a gentler country that doesn't have so many victims and when it does happen, we look after each other better."

The Dominion Post