Thursday, June 26, 2008

Help yourself, but at your own risk

A caller who identified himself simply as “Joey” phoned NewstalkZB talkback host Bruce Russell in the early hours of this morning and related the following story.

He was driving somewhere near Auckland when he flashed his lights at an approaching car, either because its lights were on high beam or weren’t on at all. (I’m sorry I didn’t get the exact detail, but I wasn’t playing close attention at this point – it was only subsequently that the story got interesting.)

The other car turned and began chasing him with its lights on full. This went on for a couple of kilometres until Joey decided to force the issue. He did a U-turn and confronted his pursuers, at which point two men got out of the other car and walked towards him. One carried a baseball bat and the other a piece of wood. It seems unlikely that they were merely wanting to compliment Joey on his car’s paintwork.

Joey got out of his car armed with a golf club and whacked one of the men on the leg. Both men then backed off, got into their car and drove away.

According to Joey’s account, he subsequently received a visit from a police officer. It seems a complaint had been laid. The policeman told him he had no right to take the law into his own hands and could be prosecuted. Joey told Russell he was now waiting to hear whether action would be taken against him.

Now there’s a possibility that the entire story was a fabrication, but I don’t think so and apparently neither did Russell. Joey – who spoke with an accent and sounded as if he could be a Pacific Islander – was no self-aggrandising blowhard. He was calm and articulate and seemed resigned to the possibility that he might end up in court for defending himself, though he seemed puzzled that his would-be assailants had apparently gone to the police when they, after all, had caused the confrontation.

The disturbing thing is that his story is consistent with others about the police cracking down on people who have the audacity to defend themselves against thugs. There was the celebrated case of Greg Carvell, the Auckland gunshop owner who was prosecuted last year (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for illegal possession of a pistol after shooting and wounding a would-be robber who threatened to kill him with a machete.

(It’s worth noting here that police themselves have fatally shot people in far less threatening circumstances without any prosecution following, which suggests a very worrying double standard. The name of Christchurch man Stephen Bellingham, who was shot dead last September merely for smashing cars with a hammer and a golf club, comes to mind. But we won’t go into that here.)

In 2006 there was the case of Paul Espiner, the Inglewood man who grabbed a machete and confronted intruders who were threatening to kill a terrified female neighbour with a baseball bat. For his trouble, Espiner was convicted for possessing an offensive weapon. The principal offender who had threatened his neighbour, meanwhile, avoided a conviction and had his name suppressed. All he had to do was write a letter of apology.

More recently it was the so-called “Sheriff of Ngawi”, an isolated fishing village on the south Wairarapa coast, who was in the news. Garth Gadsby was fined $3000 and had his shotgun confiscated after trying to stop fleeing hoodlums in a stolen car who had been on a crime rampage in the tiny town. A jury found him guilty of recklessly discharging a firearm.

Admittedly there was something Wild West-ish about Gadsby’s actions, but no one was hurt and Gadsby, a gold medal-winning shooter (and hence unlikely to hit anyone unless he intended to) was a respected member of the community with no previous convictions. The judge said people mustn’t take the law into their own hands, but the problem in places like Ngawi is that the police are a long way away and people understandably get frustrated at the law’s failure to protect them.

I’m sure the Sensible Sentencing Trust has files on other cases like these. These are simply the ones I can recall off the top of my head.

There is a pattern here: police will take action against people who dare to take the law into their own hands. This is understandable up to a point. But surely discretion should be exercised in cases where (a) someone appears to be in imminent danger, as in the Carvell and Espiner cases (and perhaps Joey’s case as well); and (b) where the police are either unable or unwilling to tackle offenders themselves, as in the Ngawi incident. Where that discretion is exercised, it too often seems to be at the expense of the person who common sense tells us is in the right. Oddly enough, the discretion is invariably applied in favour of the person who pulled the trigger if that person happens to have been wearing a police uniform, but I promised not to go into that.

A related issue, referred to recently in this blog, is the rigid police adherence to procedures that discourage people from acting in their own defence, and that hold police back from situations where people’s lives may be at risk. An example of the former was the shocking Bentley case of 2005, when a woman phoned 111 from a Bay of Plenty farmhouse to report a brutal attack on her husband while it was still in progress. Not only did the police lie to her, telling her that help was on the way when it wasn’t, but they blocked her from phoning neighbours for help. And a recent example of the latter was the police insistence on remaining at a “safe assembly point” while Navtej Singh lay bleeding to death on the floor of his Manurewa liquor store.

I have known several police officers whom I regarded as dedicated and conscientious. I can’t believe they are happy with this state of affairs. And I sometimes feel sorry for Police Association president Greg O’Connor, an honourable and decent man who is fiercely loyal to his colleagues, who is constantly forced to defend the police when they are deservedly under attack.

Public confidence in a dependable, competent, non-corrupt and adequately resourced police force is a cornerstone of a civilised society. It is something New Zealanders have traditionally taken justifiable pride in, but it is insidiously slipping away from us.

As a footnote, it was intriguing to see the number of comments on left-leaning blogs over the past couple of weeks defending the police against criticism over their conduct following the Navtej Singh shooting. The general tenor of the comments was that it was only sensible of the police to follow prescribed procedures rather than rush in to save someone and possibly put themselves at risk in the process.

To see the New Zealand left rushing to support the police is a novel experience. After all, these people are the inheritors of a political tradition in which the police were invariably seen as brutal agents of an oppressive state acting in the interests of the ruling class. The thuggish rightwing cop, bashing protesters with his identity badge concealed, is part of leftist folklore.

I have wondered at length about possible explanations for this sudden change of heart. I’ve concluded that the left rather likes the thought of a police force that has been emasculated and enfeebled by protocols and procedures, rather than the more robust one New Zealanders have known in the past, and will do whatever it can to accelerate the process.


Bearhunter said...

What amazes me about the police reaction to self-preservation by anyone not wearing a uniform is that they are quite happy to club/pepper spray someone into submission in a cell and then look all hurt when asked to front up in court and explain themselves. Actually, that's a bit over the top. But what does rankle - and I was almost tried over a similar situation to Joey - is that while I was acting in accordance with the law (ie I was defending myself and my property from attack) and was within the limits of the law - I used reasonable force, disarming and hurting my would-be assailant but not leaving him unconcious on the ground.
Never mind all that, off I was hauled while the poor baba who had leapt from a car to beat me up for honking at him when he cut me off was offered a lift home, despite me telling him that I had been hit first. If it hadn't been for the emergence of a wtness, the police would have gleefully hauled me up in front of a judge and added another tick on their crime clearance stats. Thankfully, trial by jury tends to show the police up a lot of the time, with the general public able to appreciate what is meant by reasonable force and by self-defence better than the police, who are meant to know about the law.

homepaddock said...

It's not only police who don't like you helping yourself. Three years ago a Central Otago shepherd broke his leg while mustering, cell phone reception was poor and the battery was nearly flat so instead of calling 111 his boss called a mate with a helicoptor & who knew the area. The shepherd was rescued - then ACC refused to pay the bill until politicians got involved. See:

Unknown said...

I'm afraid this kind of nonsense happens in the UK too, all too often. People who defend themselves (while remaining within the law) are hauled before the courts or issued with a caution, while violent perpetrators get away without a stain on their characters.

Sadly our societies have lost what used to be "common sense" - in other words, what would seem to be natural justice or just plain fairness. Police and other public agencies are bound up in regulations and procedures which are supposed to protect justice, but which have the perverse effect of rebounding on those in need of protection.