Police deny 'code of silence' in coverups

Court action stretching over seven years against police charged with coverups of an alleged assault on a suspect, who later died, ended this week with police denying a "blue code of silence" culture exists.

This week the High Court at Auckland granted an application for proceedings to be stayed against Clinton Lyall Hill, 36, a constable from South Auckland.

He had been through two trials in 2009 and 2010 with juries unable to reach verdicts after being charged with assault on George Tipene Harris, 24, and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

While off duty Mr Hill had arrested an intoxicated Mr Harris in the early hours of October 3, 2004, for trying to steal his mobile phone. He hailed a passing patrol car which he put Mr Harris in, and was later accused of beating him up in the back seat.

Mr Harris got away, ran on to Great South Rd and was hit and killed by a street sweeper truck. Mr Hill was initially charged with manslaughter, but in his first trial the jury threw that charge out.

He remained with the police throughout his trials but on February 26 this year resigned. Two weeks later it was decided he would not face a third trial. He maintained his innocence through a coroner's inquest, a Police Complaints Authority investigation and all trials.

But while the charges against Mr Hill have been stayed, the two other constables in the patrol car the night Mr Harris died have already admitted and been convicted of conspiracy to defeat the course of justice for covering up the alleged incident.

Benson Murphy and Reuben Harris were sentenced to 15 months' jail, receiving a 60 per cent reduction for agreeing to testify against their former colleagues – later reduced still further on appeal to 10 months' home detention. The two constables said for three years they faked job sheets and lied about the night to protect Mr Hill. They claimed a sergeant coached them.

The sergeant was acquitted in a separate case. His name is suppressed and he remains on the force.

In Murphy's court case it was revealed he twice tried to discuss the death of Mr Harris with his supervising sergeant but "the sergeant refused to discuss the matter with him". He finally confided in a fellow officer and golfing buddy who then dobbed him in and the case was re-opened.

Manukau police were criticised in 2005 when retired High Court judge Sir David Tompkins QC concluded there was a "blue code of silence" in the district.

Sir David specifically referenced the work of Canadian academic Janet Chan who said new police recruits were "quickly socialised into a culture of not telling, and discovered that, unless the offence was very serious, it was extremely inadvisable to blow the whistle on one's colleagues".

Civil liberties lawyer Gary Gotlieb said coverups of police misdeeds "happens more than it should".

"By and large the police will give evidence as it is but when it involves an officer, one of their own stepping over the line a bit, they will often do their best to make sure that officer doesn't get into trouble."

He said serious misconduct was not tolerated but "lesser indiscretions are often not dealt with".

However, Counties Manukau district commander Superintendent Mike Bush said of the issues around the death of Mr Harris: "This matter was fully investigated at the time by an assistant commissioner and in my opinion was an isolated incident and does not reflect on the culture of this district."

Mr Gotlieb said stamping out the culture depended on police managers cracking down, and the prosecutions around Mr Harris' death showed this was happening, though managers were away from the coalface and often unaware of day-to-day practices. He said the incoming commissioner of police, Peter Marshall, was a "pretty refreshing" man who insisted on very high standards.

The 2007 report of Dame Margaret Bazley's Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct said there "are indications that bonding among officers can still inhibit both the disclosure and the investigation of alleged misconduct by police officers".

Waikato Times