Are the boys in blue serving me and you?

TOUGH TIMES: Police Commissioner Peter Marshall and his officers have been under plenty of scrutiny.
TOUGH TIMES: Police Commissioner Peter Marshall and his officers have been under plenty of scrutiny.

Our police force has been under scrutiny over the past six months. Tracy Watkins asks Police Commissioner Peter Marshall if things need to change behind the thin blue line.

Bruce Plested is an Auckland grammar old boy, philanthropist and the founder and chairman of one of our biggest freight companies, Mainfreight. He is what people mean when they use terms like pillar of society.

So when someone like Mr Plested feels strongly enough to write a letter to the media labelling the Independent Police Conduct Authority a sham and accusing the police of an abuse of power, the Government should be worried.

It has been a couple of months from hell for the police - the Roast Busters case burst into the headlines after it was revealed a group of young men had filmed sex with drunk girls and seemingly no action was taken.

Police were made to look inept - or worse - when the claim that their hands were tied because there was no formal complaint was swiftly revealed as incorrect when it was reported one of the girls had gone to police.

Then Christchurch policeman Gordon Meyer was stripped of his long service medal after pleading guilty to indecent assault, corruption and bribery.

Police Commissioner Peter Marshall returned from an Interpol conference in Colombia to the Roast Busters storm. He admits the changing story by police fanned the flames, a symptom of the right hand not talking to the left. But apart from that initial "communication breakdown" he is confident police did not mishandle the case.

"The prosecution pathway is but one pathway; it doesn't always have to result in a court process and indeed a number of the mothers have actually said ‘well, listen, we just don't want to go there, we have other ways of dealing with this', and we absolutely respect that.

"We are there to support and not railroad through prosecutions that aren't going to succeed."

Misunderstanding of the law had also been an issue. "People say ‘well, how about unlawful sex with a person under 16?' The trouble is there that a young girl could also be party to the offence . . . it may not be appropriate to put them before the court in that particular context."

What he utterly rejects is the suggestion police have failed to move on from the culture of scepticism towards sexual assault complaints identified by a 2007 Commission of Inquiry. "I absolutely reject any connection to any joining of the dots between that set of circumstances [Roast Busters] and cultural issues."

So when Police Minister Anne Tolley informed him she would be taking the unprecedented step of referring the matter to the IPCA, his immediate response was: "Fantastic, let's do it," says Mr Marshall. "I welcome that and I'm confident the public will be reassured."

Mr Plested was moved to write because of the treatment of his friend, Parnell businessman Hamish McCourtie, who was attacked by a police dog in his driveway in 2010.

Mr McCourtie had heard what he thought was a car crash and went out to give first aid. "You couldn't get a better citizen than Hamish: he's got a top grade in first aid . . . he can tie knots, he can sort of do anything," says Mr Plested. "His nickname is MacGyver; he's a very good person."

Mr McCourtie was in hospital for a week from his injuries. The dog and its handler - who was not certified when he set his dog on the wrong man - were back on the road when he was discharged.

The IPCA investigated but refused to make the report public, and still will not release it. The police cited employment law when Mr McCourtie tried to find out what action had been taken.

Compensation was refused because the attack was covered by ACC. The injustice ate away at his friend from the inside, says Mr Plested. "You've got to put up with some injustices you can't fix, but this one is fixable; all it needs is a genuinely independent police [conduct] authority . . . not a lot of people who are sympathetic to the police."

Mr Marshall admits the McCourtie case was handled badly at first. Knowing what he does now "I would be seeing that complainant very quickly and reaching a mutually acceptable position. I don't think there is any doubt at all that went on for too long, there was procrastination, we deferred to [ACC] when perhaps we could have acted in a different manner."

But Tauranga businessman Rob Terry says it is not an isolated case. He unsuccessfully sued police over a similar incident. In 2005 he was at home watching TV with his wife and elderly father when he heard someone running across his roof. He went outside and saw a couple of police cars so headed down his driveway to point out where the offenders had gone. He was heading towards a police officer when the dog barrelled into him. "I didn't actually see the dog till it hit me because I was looking at [the police officer], he actually looked like he was going to come and smash me to the ground, but it was the dog that got me."

A middle-aged volunteer St John worker, Mr Terry had his leg ripped open to the bone. In response to questions from Fairfax, police said at no time had the dog handler considered Mr Terry an offender and he received his injuries when the dog "ran into Mr Terry biting his knee".

Mr Terry sued police when he heard about other incidents involving the same dog, and spent close to $50,000 in legal fees on a case in which he was seeking $50,000 in damages. "I figured there was definitely a rogue dog and probably a rogue handler out there and I just really wanted to get them off the road."

The IPCA refused to investigate and he was left bitter about the way police handled their evidence in court.

There have been calls for New Zealand to consider replacing the IPCA with a new body that has the power to make binding recommendations and enforce police standards.

But Mrs Tolley does not believe there is a problem. "Very seldom do the [IPCA] not make recommendations for changes to police."

Under Judge David Carruthers, the IPCA had also become more responsive.

Mr Marshall also disagrees that greater oversight is needed. "We are extremely well scrutinised and the main area of scrutiny is through the courts. We have 40,000 prosecutions every year, we take any judicial criticism very, very seriously and we have the IPCA which can inject themselves into any matter without being invited to."

Police were also subject to scrutiny by agencies and authorities including the Privacy Commissioner, Human Rights Commissioner, Race Relations Commissioner and Parliament.

The Dominion Post