Editorial: Red Devils bring a black day for police

It doesn't get much worse than this for the New Zealand Police and it is especially painful that their shame is centred on Nelson.

Instead of ridding the city of a new gang threat, they've left the Red Devils riding high. Instead of showing they are on top of new criminal activity before it gets a foothold, they've exposed a self-centred, careless culture that ought to have every law-abiding New Zealander asking that important age-old question: who will guard the guards themselves?

In throwing out charges against 21 members or associates of the Red Devils Justice France has not equivocated. Police bosses must have winced at every page of the lengthy judgment. Calling the police reckless and their conduct surprising, unwise and fraudulent, the High Court judge decided that there was criminality in some of what they did. Their actions involved "serious misuse of the court, and a troubling misunderstanding of its functions". He concluded that "the court's processes have been abused in a significant way".

The decision is a disturbing read. Justice France identifies a long list of what can generously be called misjudgments on the part of the police involved in Operation Explorer. They range from forging a warrant - something the judge says was not done in good faith - to lying on oath by a "constable X". Police can count themselves lucky if no charges are laid against them, something Justice France says is ultimately a decision for other authorities. Crystal clear, though, is an arrogance in relation to this operation. There was ample time for those running it to take advice, the judge says, and the failure to do so was a principal flaw in their conduct.

Make no mistake. Criminal gangs are not wanted in our region. The great majority of residents will applaud Nelson Bays area commander Steve Greally's avowed intention to maintain an unceasing focus on them - and it is the police's Organised and Financial Crime Agency, not the Nelson police, who are carrying the can for this appalling botch-up. Nevertheless, there is a lot of ground to be made up before the public can be certain that the police both here and around New Zealand fully understand that they are subject to the law of the land just like everyone else.

As for Police Association president Greg O'Connor, he has surely demonstrated that he has reached his use-by date as the union head. Over a long period in the role, Mr O'Connor has frequently filled the void when the actual police leaders offer little or no comment in response to criticism. He has been a staunch defender of the front-liners but, like "Comical Ali", who in 2003 maintained Iraq's invulnerability as the US tanks could be seen rolling into Baghdad behind him, the union leader can no longer be taken seriously. What the police did is indefensible. Neither Mr O'Connor nor anyone in the management hierarchy should be suggesting anything contrary to that, or planning anything other than a solemn, heartfelt apology. As a rule, New Zealanders respect and back their police. But this firm court judgment knocks another chip from the enamel. The police must take the lessons on board or their image will be further tarnished.

The Nelson Mail