Editorial: Is there a problem officer . . . ?

Last updated 05:00 23/04/2014

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OPINION: Editorial: The latest figures for police payouts to wronged members of the public provide an easy source of reproach of men and women carrying out anything-but-easy jobs.

Of course it's a bad thing that police make errors to the extent that $400,000 has been paid since July.

But it's hard to draw any strong bottom-line messages from the figures. They certainly don't appear to represent a recent decline in overall performance; rather a case of a long-time-coming payouts falling due.

The one case that has elevated this figure way beyond the corresponding period last year was $225,000 paid to the family of Halatau Naitoko, a young man tragically shot dead during a police pursuit of gunman Stephen McDonald through Auckland.

That terrible mistake was made in 2009. We can perhaps arch eyebrows at how long it takes for the payout to be made, even allowing for the subsequent inquiries. Nevertheless, the justification for a substantial sum being paid to this innocent bystander's bereft young family is unassailable.

And yes, the taxpayer stumps up when police mess up, as sometimes they do. Our police are not automatons. We require them to be skilled, but also to exercise human judgment in the most unforgiving of situations. Any system reliant on the flexibilities that human judgment brings will also be susceptible to human error.

That's not to deny that at times the faults are far from split-second misjudgments. Shameful, deceitful practices aren't unknown. The stitch-up of Shane Cribb leaps to mind. But there's no evidence, here or elsewhere, that such things are something other than a rarity, albeit one for which police should expect scrutiny.

Police are surely entitled to point out that the 350 claims settled this year come from five million interactions with the public, many of which are in high-stress circumstances.

Let's acknowledge, too, that these figures are all one-side-of-the-ledger stuff. The rather more easily counted side, at that. The savings to the nation when police get things right - be it dramatically or just as a result of ground-out routine work - are probably impossible to quantify, but would be towering indeed.

Some of the police payouts are ex gratia (goodwill) - fair cops, if you like - rather than legal expenses from civil litigation. When police attest that about half the civil litigation cases are vexatious, that's perhaps a matter of perspective, but the upshot seems to be that when legal fees are added to settlements, the annual spend is running at $1.5 million.

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Most of the claims appear to be comparatively modest amounts relating to unlawful arrests or detentions, illegal searches, compensation for property damaged or not returned, or for seizure of vehicles.

Southern police errors have drawn more than a little attention of late, mostly through the reports of the Independent Police Conduct Authority into the failure of a police communicator to recognise the significance of a Rapid (Rural Address Property Identification) number to pinpoint wandering stock on the Old Coach Rd out of Mataura, leading to a serious collision that cost a motorist his leg, and also the unjustified duration of a police dog clampdown on a burglar in Tay St.

Add to that the nationwide issue of 20,000 cases of innocent people being ticketed by mistake for speed camera offences after change-of-ownership data from the NZ Transport Agency was not automatically updated on police systems.

The attention afforded such cases was justified; but it's a part of a much, much bigger picture.

 

- The Southland Times

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