Friday, May 28, 2010

Help was on the way, they said - but it wasn't

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 26.)

I have been reading the Independent Police Conduct Authority’s recent report on the police response to the fatal shooting of South Auckland liquor store owner Navtej Singh. It’s not a document anyone would read for entertainment, though aspects of it might seem almost comical if it didn’t concern the death of an innocent human being.

On the day the report came out, I listened to deputy police commissioner Rob Pope being grilled about its findings by Radio New Zealand afternoon host Jim Mora.

Normally the most affable of hosts, Mora gave Mr Pope a thorough working-over. Though polite, as always, Mora was at a loss to understand how the police could have cocked things up so badly.

It must be said that he didn’t get a lot of satisfaction. New Zealand’s second most senior police officer (where was commissioner Howard Broad?) was ducking and weaving, saying on the one hand that the police accepted the report’s findings but in virtually the same breath seeming to offer excuses for their failure.

Listening in my car to Mr Pope’s defensive equivocating, I found myself getting frustrated too. I particularly resented his statement – repeated two or three times – that people needed to remember that it wasn’t the police who killed the hapless Mr Singh. Well of course it wasn’t; we didn’t need to be told that. This was a lame attempt to divert attention from the point at issue, which was whether the police failed Mr Singh by not allowing help to reach him sooner. The IPCA decided that they did, though it then soft-pedalled by holding that the police had only “arguably” breached their duty of care to preserve life.

Before I go any further, and for the benefit of anyone who has been holidaying on Mars, let me recount the essential facts of the Singh killing.

He was shot in his liquor store by a man who has since been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. The killer and his accomplices left the scene immediately – yet 31 minutes elapsed before the first police unit arrived, followed six minutes later by an ambulance.

Sixty vital minutes passed between the shooting and Mr Singh’s arrival at Middlemore Hospital. A pathologist couldn’t be sure that the delay caused his death 24 hours later but commented that it wouldn’t have helped him – a statement of the bleeding obvious, if you’ll excuse a gruesome but apt pun. Those 60 minutes represented the “golden hour” that often means the difference between life and death.

While police and the ambulance waited at a “safe forward point” 800 metres from the liquor store, reluctant to advance any further for fear the offenders might still be around, Mr Singh lay dying. Others in the store made repeated calls to police and the ambulance service. All the while, other people were coming and going freely; closed-circuit TV showed an astonishing 75 movements in and out of the shop. Mr Singh’s wife was among those who arrived.

It’s hard to imagine the anxiety and bewilderment experienced during this period by the dying man and those around him. Twice people asked if they could take Mr Singh to hospital themselves. The answer came back: no, help is on its way. But it wasn’t. (There are echoes here of the infamous occasion in 2004 when police refused to allow a Bay of Plenty woman to summon neighbours for help when her husband was being attacked in a brutal home invasion, untruthfully telling her that the police were already on the scene. In fact they took an hour to arrive.)

So what caused the police to hold back in the Navtej Singh case? The IPCA report reveals no single catastrophic error, but rather a series of failures which, cumulatively, rendered the police response almost farcical: messages not passed on, vital information misheard, confusion about who was in charge, language problems, police cars going astray because of outdated maps … the list goes on. Vital minutes were wasted while police officers struggled with unfamiliar bullet-proof vests, and one officer couldn’t open the gun safe in his car because he’d lost the key.

It would be funny if the consequences hadn’t been so tragic. Consider this transcript, quoted in the IPCA report, of a police call-taker talking to St John’s Ambulance about who should establish a safe forward point: “Yeah, yeah, I mean you guys can just go and sort of wait where you’re going to wait. I mean we’re well on the way, we’ve had a few calls so we will just sort of see you there.” You’d hardly guess, from the offhand vagueness of this unprofessional pseudo-instruction, that a human life hung in the balance.

Reading the report, I didn’t get the feeling that the police failure was due to any lack of guidance or protocols dictating how they should respond in such circumstances. On the contrary, the report cites a plethora of police protocols, and you can bet that the IPCA’s criticisms will result in more being developed.

No doubt these protocols are created to avoid situations where courageous officers, acting on their own initiative, race in without a clear plan or adequate backup, as happened when Sergeant Stu Guthrie was gunned down at Aramoana. Yet I can’t help wondering whether the more systems and procedures we put in place, the more cracks we create for things to slip through.

Though the IPCA report doesn’t say this is what happened in the case of Mr Singh, there does seem a danger that police will take a risk-averse, tick-the-boxes approach, if for no other reason than to protect themselves in the event of an inquiry. That’s the nature of bureaucracies.

The bottom line is that ultimately the police are measured by how they front up in critical situations. They are supposed to be trained to deal with potentially life-threatening circumstances and the community looks to them to step up in times of danger.

The police jealously guard their exclusive right to act when public safety is imperilled, and come down on hard on anyone who dares exercise the right of self-defence (as they did with an Auckland gun shop owner who shot a machete-wielding robber).

The flip side of this is that the public expect the police to put themselves on the line when the necessity arises, though most of us hope it never will. That is the unspoken contract.

When the police are perceived as having failed to meet this expectation, as in the case of Navtej Singh, public trust in them is severely damaged. And it doesn’t help when one of our most senior police officers talks about being willing to take criticism on the chin, to use an expression used on Mora’s programme, but in fact seems reluctant to do so.