A pain in the neck for police

ANTHONY HUBBARD
Last updated 10:41 13/10/2012
Jakob Christie
ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ
Jakob Christie had a vertebra in his neck fractured when police were called to a party in Khandallah in 2009.

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Jakob Christie had his neck broken by a police baton more than three years ago. He is still waiting for the police to do something about it.

Mr Christie's supporters say it's a scandal and an outrage. If someone had broken a police officer's neck, says lawyer Keith Jefferies, "somebody would have been charged well before now".

The police "have committed a serious crime and have tried for years to cover it up," says Wellington public relations consultant Iain Morrison, whose son was one of the party's hosts. There seems to be "a culture of lies" among police, he says.

Certainly this is a peculiar case that raises serious questions about the way police investigate themselves.

A vertebra in Mr Christie's neck was fractured when police were called to a party in Homebush Rd, in the Wellington suburb of Khandallah, in early September 2009.

Mr Morrison would later take a complaint to the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

Wellington district police commander Mike Rusbatch said this week the inquiry was completed and being reviewed, which would take about six weeks. A decision would then be made.

"The length of time spent on this investigation has not been ideal and we would have liked to have resolved it sooner," he says. However, there are "challenging aspects".

One policeman, called in to review the inquiry in March this year, put it more bluntly. Detective Constable Niall Deeham told Mr Morrison that police had "stuffed up", "because they haven't done an investigation".

The police "can't just let this sit with one person doing a little bit here and a little bit there and neglecting it for, as you say, and I totally agree with you, for 2 1/2 years".

Mr Morrison, who taped the call, told Mr Deeham that "I'm just deeply suspicious of the police, and I shouldn't be".

"That's the whole issue really; our kids are deeply suspicious of police, and I want my kids to respect the law and respect the police."

Mr Deeham said "I totally agree with everything you have said . . . if this investigation's not conducted, I feel that the public will lose confidence in the police, not just those kids."

And the Independent Police Conduct Authority, which is supposed to hold police to account, has also blotted its copybook.

Authority investigator and former Wellington cop Larry Reid told Mr Morrison in 2010 that Jakob Christie was "a complete arsehole".

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For this Mr Reid was taken off the inquiry and later left the authority. The recently appointed head of the authority, Sir David Carruthers, told The Dominion Post this week that Mr Reid's remark was "intolerable".

"There's no room for that sort of comment in what we do."

An authority spokeswoman says the authority had finished most of its work "some time ago" and was waiting for the police report on Mr Christie's injury.

Police had another apparent conflict of interest in this case.

Mr Deeham told Mr Morrison that in the last couple of years he had come to New Zealand from the British police force, "so I don't know the individual parties at Wellington, so I'm as independent in Wellington as you can get from these people".

However, Mr Morrison found that Mr Deeham had signed his name and left a jokey comment on the Facebook page of one of the officers who attended during the Homebush Rd incident.

Mr Jefferies says the saga is "a constitutional outrage".

"It's indicative of a police force that doesn't want to face up to its responsibilities or is just completely dysfunctional - one of the two."

Mr Morrison, who has kept a detailed file on the case, says the saga has shaken his own faith in police.

"I'm not anti-police," he says. "I have a daughter and a son-in-law in the police in Sydney." But this experience has left him "cynical".

Mr Christie, now 23 and working as a plumber, was one of several young people who say they were struck with batons when a squad of 20 police closed down the party on Friday, September 4, 2009.

He had been sitting on a bed when police entered. They pulled him up by the shirt and pushed him and other young people into the hallway "where there was a gauntlet lined with police on each side," he told The Dominion Post this week. He was hit in the stomach by a baton and he put his hands in the air as if to say "'please don't hit me', sort of thing".

As he turned left in the hallway a policeman standing in the corner "hit me in the back of the neck and I grabbed my neck and turned round and I saw him pulling his baton back". The policeman's "teeth were grinding, clenched, like froth in the mouth". He "looked like he was on drugs".

Mr Morrison, who is sitting in on this interview, reminds Mr Christie that in one of his first statements he had described the policeman as looking like a cornered dog.

"Yeah, or someone on P," Mr Christie says. "I grabbed my neck and said, 'What the f...? Did you just hit me? Why did you hit me?' And then I think it was the sergeant or one of the other policeman said, just kind of pushed me, said 'Get out', so I did. There was nothing I could do, I left the house."

Outside, police lined up across the road with their batons and forced partygoers to move down the street and disperse.

Mr Christie hid in a driveway and later returned to the house.

"By then I was in too much pain to be standing up. I went and sat on the couch and when I sat down it all just sunk in - I realised how much pain I was in." He took a taxi home.

When he woke next morning and tried to get out of bed, "my whole back was on fire. My arms, I couldn't move my arms just because of the pain."

He went to an appointment at the Probation Office in Newtown and was told to go to the nearby hospital.

"Within about five minutes of having the X-ray that's when the doctor came out from the waiting room and she looked real sheepish and she kind of, she said real quiet or kind of scarily, 'Can you please stand up very carefully and follow me to my office'.

"And that's when she sat me down in a seat in the office and showed me the X-rays on the computer and said, 'You've got a broken neck'."

Mr Christie was put on a stretcher and given morphine "and I just fell right asleep".

He remained in a neck brace for three months.

Police say the party was out of control and that bottles were thrown at them.

Sergeant Andrzej Kowalczyk said in a brief of evidence in September 2009 that the squad had gone to the address after being told 20 gatecrashers had arrived and fighting had erupted.

Between 15 and 20 people were milling about at the front of the house.

"There was no fighting, but a number of females were visibly upset and some males were hyped up [aggressive body stances]."

One drunk young man had told the officers to "piss off" because the police weren't needed. Noise could be heard from the street.

Police decided to to shut down the party because it was out of control "and if we left it then fighting or even worse violence was likely to break", Mr Kowalczyk said.

Ten or 15 people had disappeared inside the house.

"As they went inside I heard voices say f... the police are coming, f... them, FTP [f... the police] etc. At this point I heard the sound of at least two bottles smash on the ground to the right of me."

When police reached the house, the door was barricaded from inside and police appeals to open it "were met with threats and abuse".

"At this point I saw a bottle come flying out of a window and smash on the ground. The bottle narrowly missed Constable Booth's head. Moments later a second bottle came flying past me, this time from behind, and smashed on the ground inside the car port."

The officers broke the glass in the door and when they were inside, Mr Kowalczyk said, a male reached out towards another constable and another "grabbed me on the right shoulder".

"Fearing that I might be dragged down, I executed a short-end jab with my side-handled baton. The strike was aimed and connected on his hip and caused him to buckle and stagger back. Once this happened I did not see where or what he did. I saw no other staff execute baton strikes."

Constable Jared Booth gave a similar brief of evidence about the smashing of bottles, as did Sergeant Sam Gilpin.

Mr Booth added that inside the house "two males fronted up to me with bottles in their hands, which they raised up while yelling profanities".

"Fearing that I was going to be struck I executed baton strikes and redirected the males towards the main entrance where they were forced outside."

The house was cleared in less than a minute, Mr Kowalczyk's statement said, and a group of 30 to 40 had stopped in the middle of the street, "hurling threats and abuse at police".

He became aware of two arrests, one for assault on police. Mr Booth said a female "struck out at me with an open hand, hitting me across the shoulder", and was arrested.

Police formed a skirmish line and pushed the crowd down the street, where it thinned out.

Samantha McKenzie, the young woman who rang police at the party and was to be called as their informant in court, says the police have lied about what happened.

In an affidavit to the Independent Police Conduct Authority on 20 July, 2010, she said she was "standing with the police near the end of the driveway" and had exactly the same view of events as Mr Kowalczyk, Mr Gilpin and Mr Booth.

Ms McKenzie, a 21-year-old administrator, specifically rejected the statements the police made about smashing bottles, excessive noise, and physical threatening of police.

The three had made false declarations, she said, "to paint a picture of an escalating out-of-control situation with bottles being thrown and police being physically assaulted to justify their actions . . . such a situation as alleged by the police is simply not true".

"At this incident, I saw none of the partygoers 'front up' or act in a threatening manner to the police. I believe that the reaction by the police was completely over the top and that they assaulted with their batons many of the partygoers.

"That was one of the most disgraceful things I have seen in my life. I felt sickened witnessing those actions."

Ms McKenzie said police pinned a gatecrasher to the ground and kicked him and hit him on the back with a baton, and the "victim started to scream in pain. In my view, it was police behaviour that was tantamount to torture."

It was true, she said, "that a couple of foolish partygoers swore at the police".

"I told them to leave and not use bad language, but the situation could have easily been handled by a couple of constables. I counted 18 police officers entering the house and believe the police completely overreacted to the situation."

At no time was she scared for her safety from the people at the party. She was scared that her friends would be hurt when the gatecrashers arrived, but expected only one police car to come "and they would accept that the trouble was over because the problem gatecrashers had left".

In a separate interview with the police in August 2011, Ms McKenzie was asked about her statement during her 111 call that "there's bottles being thrown but I don't know if they're using them as weapons. There's a lot of blood."

When asked what injuries, she had told the 111 operator, "Well, not injured - but they've been fighting people". Later in the call she said "It's settled down".

When asked by the police interviewer if she recalled saying bottles were thrown, Ms McKenzie replied: "Not at all". However, she "must have" said it. "I wouldn't have lied." She said one bottle was definitely thrown, but none after police arrived.

Mr Jefferies, who forwarded Ms McKenzie's affidavit to police in July 2010, said the prosecutions against those at the party should be abandoned in light of her statement.

Mr Jefferies said this week that in fact charges were soon afterwards dropped against the four remaining young people arrested at the party.

Mr Morrison says the police inquiry into the affair has been deliberately slow.

Police have dragged the chain and hoped the case would go away. As for the Independent Police Conduct Authority, the body to whom police are accountable, "I believe the police are thumbing their nose at their watchdog because they don't fear it."

Police had tried to discredit Mr Christie a few weeks after the party, he says, by leaking details of Mr Christie's criminal record to The Dominion Post. He had six convictions, some as a minor, for driving offences, fighting, and making racist and abusive remarks to police.

The leaked report said Mr Christie "does not have much credibility" and said his injury had been overstated. It should "be referred to as a 'chipped bone' as opposed to a broken neck".

Mr Christie acknowledged this week that he is not an angel. However, he is adamant he did not abuse police or do anything wrong on the night of the Homebush Rd party. In fact, he had calmed down a friend of his who wanted to fight the gatecrashers.

"I had taken him away from the party and sat him down in his van and chilled him out."

As for the "chipped bone," the doctors at the hospital who took the X-ray had themselves referred to a "broken neck" and warned him to "sit down very carefully" because of the danger it posed.

Two other partygoers say they saw a policeman hit Mr Christie in the neck with a baton. Josh Kosmala says police were herding the partygoers towards the front door and freely hitting them as they went. Mr Christie "had his hands raised to the effect of 'I surrender', and then he just got whacked in the back of the neck by one of the dudes [police]," Mr Kosmala says.

James Yuill told police in 2011 that officers had come into the room where he and Mr Christie were and told everyone to get out.

One officer was swinging his baton and "poking people as we left", and another officer at the end of the hallway "swung his bat and it smacked Jake, or he like stabbed him, he stabbed Jake in the back and then he gave me a swing around the head. [I] dropped my bottle of beer."

Mr Morrison says Mr Christie had for a time got into trouble like many young men, and like many young men had since sorted himself out.

"He's learned his lessons."

But Mr Christie was caught in a blanket police attack on a lot of young people in a private home, he says. "He wasn't causing any problems, that's the point. Some of the others were lippy and intoxicated. The police have a very difficult job to handle these situations, but the way they approached this one was entirely wrong."

Likewise, Samantha McKenzie had overstated the trouble when she called police about the gatecrashers. However, it was obvious by the time the police arrived that there was no violence or bloodshed.

"They [the police] got there with the wrong impression [from Ms McKenzie]. But when they got there they failed to use their judgment," Mr Morrison says.

The young people were "basically good kids" who had been mistreated by police. And police investigators have taken an immensely long time to do their inquiry, with successive changes of personnel over the years.

Mr Morrison believes the go-slow is deliberate and involves senior officers.

"Would a bunch of sergeants get together to orchestrate this? Would they get together to have a go-slow? I don't think so."

Mr Rusbatch, the Wellington commander, wrote a letter to Mr Jefferies in April this year with a thinly-veiled criticism of his and Mr Morrison's work with the young partygoers.

"The number of times witnesses have spoken together about an event and who they have spoken to can impact on the cogency and integrity of their evidence," he said. "Cogency of evidence and the reliability of witnesses is a relevant consideration for investigators when speaking with witnesses. I note that a number of the statements provided to the IPCA [which you have provided us copies of] are very similar."

Mr Rusbatch this week made a related point when he referred to "challenging aspects" of the investigation. Police had identified 73 people at the party, 20 officers and other witnesses including neighbours.

"Some of the partygoers did not want to engage in the process and despite attempts to advance interviews, some did not give an account to police."

Mr Morrison angrily rejects the charge that he has been influencing the witnesses. All he had ever done was to encourage them to tell the truth to the police, he says, and helped to arrange interviews. However, some have been scarred by their experience at the party and are reluctant to talk to police.

"Can you blame them?" asks Mr Morrison. In the end, he suggests, the point is this: "If I had bashed someone with a piece of wood, the police would be there and I'd be in jail now."

So why, he asks, didn't the same thing happen when a policeman wielded the wood?

- The Dominion Post

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