Editorial: Time for police to provide answers

Jakob Christie had a vertebra in his neck fractured when police were called to a party in Khandallah in 2009.
Jakob Christie had a vertebra in his neck fractured when police were called to a party in Khandallah in 2009.

Police have some hard questions to answer about Jakob Christie. It is now three years since a police officer broke the young man's neck with a baton, and still the police inquiry is not finished. Wellington District Commander Mike Rusbatch says the time elapsed is not ideal but points to "challenging aspects". This won't do. Three years is an intolerable delay and police have no excuse.

This, after all, was not a complex inquiry. Mr Christie was hit in September 2009, when police were called to a party and cleared a house. Mr Rusbatch says there were 73 people at the party, and 20 officers and assorted neighbours and others. So let's say there were 120 people to interview. That means police have managed to interview about 40 a year, or fewer than one a week. This isn't "ideal", it's ridiculous.

Campaigner Iain Morrison says police were dragging their feet, and it is hard to draw any other conclusion. The impression left is that police were embarrassed by Mr Christie's injury and unenthusiastic about investigating it. Leaks from within police seem to confirm this. A detective told Mr Morrison six months ago that "there has been no investigation".

Police will have a tough time persuading the public that this isn't a scandal. A young man was seriously injured. Witness evidence suggests overwhelmingly that a police officer was responsible. Nothing can justify such a brutal attack - not Mr Christie's record, not the rowdy misbehaviour of young drunks at a party, and not claims that police officers felt "threatened". A crucial witness, moreover, has accused police of lying. Charges against four young people were then dropped.

This seems to leave police with nowhere to hide.

If they decide not to prosecute the officer who hit the young man, they will need good reasons to explain why. They will also need to reassure the public that they won't do something like this again. Policing, especially policing young people, is not easy. It requires judgment, maturity, and sturdy commonsense. The evidence suggests that police failed to apply these principles and wildly over-reacted.

The saga also suggests that the police watchdog, the Independent Police Conduct Authority, needs more teeth. The authority says it finished its work "some time ago". It has had to wait while police finished their job, and they seemed in no hurry to do so. This shows a lack of respect for the body to which police are accountable.

That isn't good enough. If the authority could prosecute errant officers, perhaps police would pay it more attention. At present, the authority has the power only to embarrass police by making statements and recommendations. Perhaps a sharper sanction is called for.

The effect of this whole affair is to raise doubts about police and to undermine public confidence in them. This is a serious matter in a democracy, which depends upon respect for the law and for those who enforce it. Can police in Wellington restore that faith and confidence? That will depend largely on what police now do.

The Dominion Post