Hard News by Russell Brown


Things we needed to hear

It has been fashionable in the past few weeks to say that Dame Margaret Bazley's Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct, because it would not name names or venture on cases under investigation and had been conducted under tight terms of reference, would be a blancmange. It isn't.

You only need to read parts of the report to be impressed by its canny, consistent tone. And the not-naming-names has had a beneficial effect in this way: it leaves nothing for the news media to focus on but the issues. They can find their perps and victims under their own steam.

The report, happily, describes an improvement and in police conduct of procedures since the 1980s and, less happily, finds a Police Complaints Authority that can't be bothered communicating with complainants and really doesn't meet the standards expected of a modern public agency. I guess I'm not the only one perplexed and surprised by the lack of a code of conduct.

I've never quite been able to decide how much of my more courteous dealings with police officers in the public road come down to the fact that I'm just older and how much is culture change, but I do think that the police are in a much better state now than in the 1980s.

It still makes me angry to recall how, more than once, I silently fumed while bad cops picked on and abused my gay friend Rupert for no other reason than they could. And I can hardly believe now the way they'd show up at the Windsor Castle spoiling for a fight. I remember stories about the notorious police private bar in Timaru.

I wonder if there wasn't a turning point after the Aotea Square riot in 1985. That Christmas, I was down at my folks' place and a senior Maori policeman, who would become a good friend of the family, was around for a barbecue.

"So Russell tells me you guys blew it at Aotea Square," said my Dad with his usual tact.

I cringed. I'd only just met the guy and Dad had dropped me right in it.

"Yes," said the officer. "Yes we did."

My subjective impression is that the police were never as bullying or confrontational after that. Although in the mid-90s I did spend a couple of social evenings in the company of some older policemen who were plain racist, sexist bastards. One evening I had to leave and go around to my lawyer friend's place to splutter indignantly.

Police officers have a hell of a job. They do things most of us could, or are glad not to. It's not hard to understand the culture of loyalty such conditions produce. But the cases listed in the report of sexual harassment in the workplace and conduct towards members of the public are disturbing, and often not well handled - and not all distant history either. Things have to be better than this.

Meanwhile, down at misogyny corner, the commentary of one former officer unwittingly tends to bear out unflattering stereotypes of the police in the 1980s, while someone else declares that "this has been orchestrated to take PC control of the police". Whatever.

At any rate, Dame Margaret deserves great praise for this report. It's thorough, intellectually rigorous and frank. And it says things we needed to hear.

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