Police avoid hard questions

Last updated 05:00 28/10/2012

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The staff at the Serious Fraud Office must surely be allowed a fleeting moment of smug satisfaction. In the past year they have successfully pursued charges or convictions involving eight finance companies and targeted $2.2 billion worth of fraud and scored a 100 per cent conviction rate.

OPINION: Meantime, the agency set up to replace them - the Organised and Financial Crime Agency of New Zealand (Ofcanz) - has just had a spanking from a High Court judge.

A two-year operation to snare Red Devils members collapsed because the agency deceived a court. This was the same organisation - headed by the same police officer, Detective Inspector Grant Wormald - that used unlawful search warrants on the raid on Kim Dotcom's home. It is now referred to within police as "Occasionally Finding Criminals Across New Zealand".

The SFO was offered a reprieve from incoming Prime Minister John Key in 2008. Then-police minister Judith Collins set about cracking down on organised crime.

Ofcanz's first strike was against the Tribesmen motorcycle gang. Expanded police surveillance powers enabled them to apply for an interception warrant to investigate gangs. Penalties for belonging to a gang were increased and made an aggravating factor at sentencing. Both police and councils got greater authority to deal with "fortresses". A new unit was set up to seize assets. And in August last year the Government launched an organised-crime strategy.

But with all this extra grunt seems to have come the interpretation that it's OK to break the law to uphold the law. Both police and the Government Security Communications Bureau (at the behest of Ofcanz) indulged in unlawful spying in the lead-up to the Urewera raids and Kim Dotcom. Absurdly, the police are now investigating the illegal surveillance on the internet millionaire.

Unlawful warrants were used on Dotcom and a raid on the Red Devils club house. And in the latest, most shameless example, police faked a warrant, staged a prosecution - with one constable lying on oath - and then rewrote the rule book that explicitly forbade them deceiving the courts.

It seems our law enforcement agencies have become more concerned with the enforcement and less about the law. This month Deputy Auditor-General Phillippa Smith noted that police need to be "receptive to outside scrutiny" as she delivered a stinging rebuke over their lack of progress in overhauling police conduct. It was recently revealed that an investigation into the case of a Wellington man who suffered a broken neck when police raided a party has taken more than three years.

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And yet Police Minister Anne Tolley and Key see no need to delve any deeper and ask the hard questions. Rather than question police conduct in the past week they expressed disappointment that alleged gang members had walked free.

Neither Tolley nor Key saw fit to ask Commissioner Peter Marshall for a full explanation - hiding behind the dual reasoning that there might be an appeal and, anyway, it's all operational. Tolley has also said it may be an issue for the Independent Police Complaints Authority.

But because there has been no death or serious injury, the watchdog must wait for a complaint, and none of the parties has indicated this is likely. Similarly, the chances of officers being hauled before the criminal courts to answer for their actions are remote.

- Sunday Star Times

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