Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Public sympathy is with the shop owners

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 15.)

When police announced they had arrested South Auckland liquor store owner Virender Singh for attacking a youth with a hockey stick, my first reaction was that this would be another massive blow to public confidence in the police.

Initial accounts suggested Singh used the hockey stick in self-defence after he was stabbed by one of several youths whom he suspected of shoplifting. This made the police statement that he should have phoned 111 and waited for help seem absurd.

After all, no store owner is going to say someone attacking him with a knife: “Please desist while I phone the police. Oh, and if it’s not inconvenient, could you hang around until the police arrive so they can arrest you?”

No, it would be a natural human reaction to use whatever means were at hand to defend yourself. It would also be understandable if, in your anger and fear, you meted out more punishment to your assailant than was strictly necessary.

Subsequent news coverage, however, suggested there may have been more to this incident than was first apparent. That was certainly the impression given by the officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Sergeant Dave Pizzini, who made it clear he believed Singh used excessive force and therefore strayed outside the law that allows citizens to use “reasonable” force to defend themselves and their property.

It was perhaps significant that a retired detective chief inspector, Rex Miller, withdrew an email he had sent to Police Commissioner Howard Broad protesting about the police decision to prosecute Singh. He did this after Pizzini contacted him and gave him more information about the case.

So where does all this leave us? It suggests that the initial accounts, which indicated that Singh retaliated with the hockey stick only after being stabbed, were not entirely accurate. Perhaps the violence he inflicted on the youth really was gratuitous, as Pizzini implied.

We will have to wait for the evidence to be heard in court before coming to any conclusions about that. But in the meantime there can be little doubt that public sympathy will overwhelmingly be on Singh’s side, for reasons that have less to do with the specific facts of his case than with general unease about violent crime.

The incident took place against a backdrop of increasing lawlessness in South Auckland, where street gangs intimidate shop owners and indulge in acts of casual, often random violence.

Besides creating a climate of fear among the public in general and shop owners in particular, this has highlighted dwindling confidence in the ability of the police to protect law-abiding citizens.

Many people are convinced the police have been enfeebled by rigid protocols and political correctness. They worry that the arrest of a citizen who takes action to protect his own safety or property will encourage street thugs to behave with even more impunity and brazen disregard for the rights of others than they do now.

They will applaud Singh for going on the offensive. If more business owners took the same action, people will reason, young criminals would think twice before shoplifting or robbing tills.

Police advice to people in threatening situations is to ring 111. But shop owners worry that even if they follow that advice (assuming they’re not being bashed or stabbed in the meantime), they have no idea how long it will take for assistance to arrive. Any South Auckland business owner in a potentially life-threatening situation is bound to remember the murder of Navtej Singh, and how police took 45 minutes before deciding it was safe to attend the scene.

The lesson from such incidents is: “You’re on your own, buster – don’t count on the cops to save you.” Who can blame people like Singh for taking the law into their own hands? Even former Police Minister George Hawkins, whose electorate covers part of South Auckland, says he understands why many shop owners now keep weapons under the counter.

People will snort with derision at Pizzini’s advice that people should use “common sense” in dangerous situations. A person fearing his life might be in imminent danger from violent hoodlums isn’t likely to use common sense; his actions are likely to be dictated by adrenalin, fear, anger and survival instinct.

Neither is a person in such a situation likely to have the luxury of time in which to ponder on what the police might consider “reasonable” force. It’s all very well for someone to pontificate from the safety of a Wellington high-rise on what might constitute a “proportionate” response to a violent attack, as I heard someone from the Solicitor-General’s staff doing on radio; but when someone is waving a knife or a baseball bat in your face in an Otara liquor store, the urgency of the situation rather precludes measured deliberation on what the law allows. That’s a luxury left to judges and juries long after the event.

Admittedly, police are in a difficult situation here. They can’t allow a situation to develop in which vigilantes feel free to run amok, and they can’t risk a tit-for-tat ratcheting up of violence. Besides, they have to enforce a law that limits the right of self-defence, though I suspect many police officers are uncomfortable doing so.

But harassed shopkeepers are in a far worse predicament. They are faced with a choice between being injured or murdered if they follow police advice, and the risk of prosecution and a criminal record if they take action in self-defence and happen to overstep the mark.

My own view, and I suspect that of most people, is that criminals waive their rights the moment they violate yours. We can only hope that judges and juries show more sympathy for this view than the law allows the police to do.

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