Police conduct out in the open

OPEN: Sir David Carruthers, chairman of the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
OPEN: Sir David Carruthers, chairman of the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

More public reporting will build confidence in the Independent Police Conduct Authority, chairman Sir David Carruthers writes.

The police, just like anyone else, can make mistakes.

Their duties are often difficult and sometimes dangerous. They're often first on the scene of violent confrontations or personal tragedies.

Their jobs can involve fast- moving and rapidly changing circumstances that require them to make important judgments quickly and decisively.

It is vital that the public has confidence in the police force. That is why there will always be a need for a strong and independent authority overseeing police actions and exposing any mistakes, abuse or corruption.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority receives thousands of complaints about police actions each year.

Most are referred back to the police for investigation under the authority's independent oversight. The authority has five investigators who independently investigate the most serious complaints, such as those involving death, grievous bodily harm or serious misconduct.

For instance, yesterday we released our report into a tragic case in Hamilton where escaped mental health patient Christine Morris murdered her next-door neighbour Diane White. The authority's investigation found that police could have prevented the death if officers had been despatched immediately once they were told where Ms Morris was.

Unfortunately, these investigations often involve tragedies. Sometimes these are preventable, sometimes they are not. Sometimes police are at fault and sometimes they are not. I believe it is important for that information to be publicly available.

The authority is required by law to maintain secrecy in respect of complaints, and to conduct its investigations in private. However, it has the discretion to publish public reports.

In the past, the majority of complaints investigated by the authority were concluded through direct confidential correspondence with the complainant, rather than with a public report. There have been good reasons in the past to keep reports private - for instance, family privacy considerations - and I am not prepared to revisit any of those past decisions.

However, I wish to see more public reports released in future. I have received legal advice recently regarding the legal parameters of our public reporting. In future we will publish summary reports on all of our independent investigations, unless there is an over-riding private interest in maintaining confidentiality. That decision will be made on a case-by-case basis.

I hope more public reporting will help create a greater awareness of the authority.

It is important for us to be accessible and for the public to have confidence in the authority and its effective operation. People need to be aware that they can make a complaint to an independent body, and be confident that complaint will be dealt with in a timely, fair and impartial way, and that our findings will be thorough and balanced.

Unfortunately, in the past, there have been significant delays in some investigation reports.

Some of those delays are inevitable, for instance when cases are being dealt with by the criminal courts or the coroner. Sometimes we must wait for the police to conduct their own internal investigation into cases before we launch our own investigation, and this can take many months in some instances.

Thorough, fair and professional investigations and reports do take time.

However, I wish to avoid any delays due to our own resources and organisational structure.

A review of our structure is under way and I plan to make some organisational changes to build capability.

I wish to see the authority become a world-class organisation. The benefits of that would help create a world-class police force.

The Dominion Post