Editorial: Police conduct is unbecoming

The police have wisely kept their own counsel since Justice Simon France threw out the case against 21 Nelson bikie gang members because police staged a fake arrest to bolster the credentials of an undercover officer. There is nothing that can be said that would put their actions in a better light.

Not so. Police Association president Greg O'Connor has sprung to the defence of his members and lambasted the judge for undoing "a lot of hard and extremely creative work".

A more unfortunate choice of words is difficult to imagine. The creativity involved in preparing a fake search warrant, swearing a false oath and laying false charges is not the sort of creativity required of police officers. Their job is to uphold the law, not to break it.

The case is a gross embarrassment to the police and it is not the first, or even the second, occasion this year on which police have betrayed a worrying ignorance of basic legal principles.

In June, Chief High Court Judge Justice Helen Winkelmann ruled that the warrants police used to search the Coatesville property of alleged internet pirate Kim Dotcom were invalid and labelled the sending of cloned hard drives to the United States "unlawful".

In July, Youth Court Judge Mary O'Dwyer found that police had seriously breached the rights of two Upper Hutt teenagers by holding them in custody without sufficient reason and by detaining them for more than 24 hours without consulting a senior social worker.

In August, Detective Inspector Grant Wormald, the officer in charge of the Dotcom raid, told the High Court that, to his knowledge, no surveillance of Dotcom was undertaken by anyone other than the police. A month later it was revealed that the Government Communications Security Bureau had been spying on Dotcom at the request of the police Organised and Financial Crime Agency he heads. Mr Wormald was also the officer in charge of the Nelson investigation.

Police perform a difficult and, at times, dangerous role. In New Zealand they enjoy the respect of the public, but that respect is not a bottomless pool from which police can draw at will.

Ultimately, the public view of police is shaped by their conduct, not their uniforms. Police wear similar uniforms overseas, but, in many jurisdictions, are viewed with suspicion because of the way they flout the law.

Police here should forget about appealing against Justice France's decision and set about putting their house in order.

The Nelson bikie gang members suspected of drug and other offences have not walked free because of a judicial error, but because the officers involved in the case left Justice France with no option but to send a message: the ends do not justify the means.

The judiciary is one of the three arms of government. To retain the confidence of the public the courts must be independent. They cannot allow themselves to be entangled in unlawful subterfuges.

The scrapping of the case is the price that must be paid for maintaining the integrity of the justice system.

Related story: Prime Minister backs police after undercover blunder

The Dominion Post