Hard News by Russell Brown


When that awful thing happens

Radio was the "star" of media coverage of the siege in Napier, wrote Paul Holmes yesterday: "The frantic calls coming in to the talkback station in those first hours of the siege and through subsequent days and nights - local residents, neighbourhood people round the Molenaar house, people trapped in their homes, people cut off from their loved ones - kept the story vibrant and real.

"Suddenly, everyone was a news reporter, everyone contributed. The desperation of the callers, the fear many of them expressed, was often moving. Their involvement drew us all in, made us all involved. We were right there with them. It was talkback radio at its finest. And it worked both ways, in that people calling in from inside the cordoned area were able to be heard and to feel that, despite their isolation, they were still part of a community."

I can imagine that would have been remarkable and immediate radio. But that wasn't the experience of one Newstalk ZB listener, my mother. She had to turn off the radio to escape the febrile atmosphere of two days' talkback in which people who knew nothing were prepared -- and allowed! -- to go to air with mere rumours, most notably that there was another person caught in Jan Molenaar's house.

Then there were those who seemed to expect an awful situation to resolve itself in a commercial hour, as if it were merely a cop drama; and those who were brave on the behalf of others, and demanded to know why the house had not simply been stormed, or the body of poor Len Snee not been promptly retrieved.

It now appears there were very good reasons for the police to act as they did. And, indeed, there almost always are. There are clear practices, formed in grim experience, for this kind of situation, and they are pursued by police with the overriding aim of making sure no one else dies.

There are not many jobs that carry the possibility of violent death, and although the construction worker killed in an accident is no less dead than the cop shot in cold blood, it does feel different.

Although, in general, our national attention to a crisis such as this does not help the police in their job, and may sometimes hamper them, it would be absurd to treat it as anything other than a major news story. And so, the respective newsreaders were flown in to conduct live crosses at the barriers.

Molenaar's friends and family were also remarkably forthcoming with their feelings and their analyses of his character. There were great human interest stories. For that matter, there were great animal interest stories. For those so inclined, there were webcams on Hospital Hill, and Google Street View. And there were guns, bombs and a standoff with police. There was, in short, no way the thing wasn't going to turn into a telethon.

There will now be plenty of reckoning:

There would be a coronial inquiry, a homicide inquiry into Snee's death, as well as an investigation into the wounding of Miller, Diver and Holmwood.

A investigation would also take place into the police operation, including reviewing decisions officers had taken during the incident and tactical operations used.

And a look would be taken into the cannabis search warrant which put the officers into the path of a crazed Molenaar.

But I think there are places we can draw the line. Under the headline Criminologist: Police death trend depressing, Greg Newbold told TVNZ's reporter that "Being a cop in New Zealand is not as safe as it used to be … The numbers might still be relatively small but there seems to be more and more of them, which is quite depressing."

Rebecca Milne's story in the Herald, Napier shooting: Three police killed in a year brings NZ on par with US, opened thus:

The slaying of Senior Constable Len Snee brings to three the number of police officers killed in the past year, putting the country's cop killing statistics on a par with America.

"That's high for a year. There is no pill we can take that will fix everything overnight," NZ Police Association president Greg O'Connor said.

I don't need to tell you about the statistical folly of trying to declare an average or a trend on the basis of a single cluster. Yes, three New Zealand policemen have been killed on duty in the past 12 months: Derek Wootton was struck by a fleeing car in July, as he laid road spikes in Titahi Bay; in September, Don Wilkinson was trying to secretly fit a tracking device to the car of a suspect in a drug investigation, and was discovered, chased and shot with a .22 rifle; and Leonard Snee was shot by Jan Molenaar.

But we went fully six years without a police killing before then. And this is not some purely modern disease. The relevant Wikipedia article records 29 New Zealand police officers killed in the line of duty since 1890 -- 16 of them by gunshot, including the four officers who died at the hands of Stanley Graham in Hokitika, on October 8, 1941.

In 1963, Wallace Chalmers and Neville Power were killed by Victor George Wasmuth while attending a shooting. And less than a month later, officers James Richardson and Brian Schultz were cold-bloodedly shot in their car, as they attended a domestic dispute. Their murderer, Douglas McPhee, was sentenced to life and served 11 years before being paroled in 1974.

And the American comparison? So far this year, 46 American law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty, 15 by gunfire and 16 in road accidents. So far this year one New Zealand officer has died. This certainly gives us a higher rate per capita for that short period. But bear in mind that from July 2002 to July 2008, no New Zealand policeman was killed in the line of duty.

The long view is more striking: about 15,000 American cops killed since the year 1900. The worst years were those of Prohibition -- more than 200 officers killed in 1929, and 244 in 1930.

On the other side of the equation in this case is a man who seems to have been living for the day when it would all come crashing down. Jan Molenaar was fit and deadly. It makes me dwell on the arrogant power over the rest of us assumed by those who arm themselves this way. (I still think I have a right to be suspicious and resentful of the clowns who got themselves tooled up in 2007.)

But it's hard in a hunting country to prevent people owning powerful rifles, and for a man with such enabling friends as Molenaar did to be intercepted before it all turns awful. People will shout the odds about solutions, but there is an extent to which we must simply trust the police to respond when that awful thing happens.


Hey, I have two double passes to tomorrow's opening night of Te Radar's new show,
Eating the Dog at Bats in Wellington. And I'm going to give them away. Sorry! gone!

No mucking about (apart from the fact that I meant to do this on Friday) -- hit Reply below and first in with 'Eating the Dog' in the subject line gets the prize.

Stay tuned for a similar giveaway for next week's Auckland shows and some sort of review after our family goes along to one of them.

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