You could sense interviewer Geoff Robertson’s raised eyebrows on today’s Morning Report when Wellington police commander Pieri Munro said police had spent the past two years working on a policy – still not completed – to ensure dangerous parolees like the killer Graeme Burton didn’t slip through the net in future. Robertson rightly asked why it was taking so long, to which Munro responded that these things take time. He couldn’t give a date for when the new policy might be finalised.
I wonder if there’s a small clue here to what ails the New Zealand police. There was a time when the police pretty much made things up as they went along. Operational decisions were made according to the circumstances of the moment, applying the lessons of experience and common sense. There were times when this ad hoc approach backfired terribly, as in the lethally amateurish police response to firearms incidents in the 1960s which led directly to the formation of the armed offenders squads. But it seemed to work most of the time; police turned up where and when they were needed, had a crime resolution rate that was as good as any in the world, and commanded the respect and confidence of the public.
Granted, policing is enormously more complex now than it was then, and the demands on police infinitely greater. But you can’t help wonder whether the police have been captured, and in the process enfeebled, by a bureaucratic obsession with formal processes and protocols, of which the delay in finalising the procedure for dealing with potentially troublesome parolees is just one example. Is it really so complex?
As with so many other police issues it’s possible to detect here the dead hand of the HR department, with its tick-the-boxes mentality. The same mindset is apparent in day-to-day operational decisions. No longer does an experienced senior sergeant make a snap judgment about what’s required in a given situation. There are prescribed steps to be followed and implications to be considered. Health and safety considerations – a concept unheard of as recently as Aramoana, where police were still allowed to display individual initiative and heroism – now seem to impact heavily on operational decisions.
This would explain the appalling (and on the face of it, callous) delay before an ambulance was allowed to attend the Manurewa liquor store where Navtej Singh lay dying, a period during which people continued to come and go from the store with impunity while Singh’s business partner tried to convince police by cellphone that the armed robbers had fled. It seems there were steps to be followed: firearms needed to be issued (aren’t they routinely carried in many patrol cars?) and “safe assembly point protocols” – there’s a classic HR phrase for you – had to be observed. In the meantime, an innocent man lay bleeding to death. Who knows whether he might have lived if the police commander had overruled the wretched “protocols” in the interests of humanity?
The police have deservedly taken a pasting over this. Former Act MP turned National candidate Stephen Franks in his blog (www.stephenfranks.com) called it “officially ordered cowardice”. He also recalled that New Zealand had two similar incidents when he was in Parliament: “A woman died slowly of gunshot wounds over hours in a Fielding house, begging for help on the phone, long after the killer had left. Police refused to let anyone near the house. Not long after that a constable died on the front lawn of another Manawatu house, while police stood clear in case the killer was still there waiting to shoot more police. I made myself unpopular by asking the Minister of Police questions. The responsible officer treated them as insults to police courage.”
The New Zealand Herald pointed out that the police had a proud record of “common sense over-riding bureaucratic impediments when a life is at risk” – a policy not followed on this occasion. The Southland Times (whose editorial writer Michael Fallow deservedly was named the best in the country in the recent Qantas media awards) put it much more bluntly, accusing the police of following “a series of arse-covering procedural requirements” that had more to do with everyone getting their reports right than with helping the victims. Even local MP George Hawkins, a former Minister of Police (albeit a spectacularly ineffectual one), was frothing with frustration at the police action (or, if you prefer, inaction).
Perhaps it was incidents such as the death of Sergeant Stu Guthrie at Aramoana and the furore over the unnecessary shooting of Steven Wallace at Waitara that led to an over-cautious police force taking refuge in red tape. But as seems to be the New Zealand way, we have lurched from one extreme – the almost casual, make-it-up-on-the-spot approach that saw several officers shot dead in Auckland and Lower Hutt in the 1960s – to the other. Maybe it’s time practical cops at the front line wrested control back from desk-bound bureaucrats at headquarters.