Editorial: Police have work to do

20:35, Oct 19 2012

It has been a long haul, or should we make that a long plod? It began with complaints by two women around 2004 about police mishandling of their sexual-assault allegations against police officers or police associates.

The Police Complaints Authority oversaw one inquiry. The prime minister at the time, Helen Clark, moreover announced a commission of inquiry into police conduct.

The commissioner, Dame Margaret Bazley, was given plenty of time to do her job: her reporting date was March 30, 2007. In the upshot, she found "evidence of some disgraceful conduct by police officers and associates" involving the exploitation of vulnerable people, mainly in the 1980s - evidence of officers turning a blind eye to inappropriate sexual activity; a wall of silence from colleagues protecting officers complained about; and a culture of scepticism in dealing with complaints of sexual assault.

This kind of police misconduct was relatively rare, she emphasised. Nevertheless, she listed several matters needing urgent attention and made a raft of recommendations for change.

She was prescient too. While pleased that the police had seen the commission as a catalyst for taking the steps she identified, she was concerned that "the police impetus for change may not be sustained once the commission is discharged". She was calling, after all, for long-term changes to the police culture as well as its systems.

Her advice that an independent agency monitor and report on the implementation of the changes led to the Office of the Auditor-General's involvement. This week it published its third report - a critical one - on how well the police have responded.

Deputy Auditor-General Phillippa Smith says implementation of most of the commission's 47 recommendations remains unfinished. A recommendation to improve services for adult sexual assault complainants, for example, has met with "mixed but relatively poor progress" and the police culture still tolerates sexual harassment and "sexually inappropriate behaviour". Acting Commissioner Viv Rickard said the police acknowledge "they still have work to do". They had better get on with it. As Ms Smith observes, the public's confidence is fundamental to effective policing. By dragging their feet, the police weaken the long arm of the law.