Focus on Police Competence

The Trevor Franklin Police Botchup - Index

2001 News Reports - Index

Sunday Star Times
November 4 2001

A Fair Cop?
by Nicholas Maling

On any day of the week in the busy courtrooms of the Manukau District Court in south Auckland, one of the emerging crisis areas of our justice system is on parade.

The charge sheets are full of burglaries, assaults, rapes and murders. Between 100 and 120 people a day are shunted through one courtroom.

It is at courts like this that concerns are growing the police are lining up the wrong people for the wrong crime, or letting the guilty walk free through lack of evidence.

The Sunday Star-Times has been told of a malaise affecting a crucial juncture in the justice system, police prosecutions.

This is where the 9000-strong police force puts its cases before the courts for judgement. This is where justice should be done.

Shoddy preparatory work or poor investigation carries a high cost--wrong convictions or unwarranted acquittals.

Lawyers say these are precisely the risks being run by the police. The Criminal Bar Association and the Bar Association, which represent criminal lawyers and lawyers respectively, have raised concerns about a decline in the quality of police preparatory work for court. Stuart Grieve, QC, of the Bar Association, points particularly to deficiencies in casework for the lower end of seriousness of crimes.

But David Jones, a spokesman for the Criminal Bar Association, says lawyers in his association are complaining about the quality of police work right up to the serious cases.

"I have real concerns about the level of experience and the level of competence of a significant number of police officers involved in serious criminal investigations," he says.

Police commissioner Rob Robinson's brow furrows at the lawyers' comments. He is the big-chested cops' cop who has the job of cleaning up after the ignominy of Peter Doone's departure from the helm of the police.

With a reputation for integrity, it is hard to imagine Robinson would ever make the kind of personal misjudgements that saw Doone bundled out.

But he faces the task of rebuilding public confidence knocked by Doone's actions and which has been knocked by further incidents since.

Robinson started off with a hard line on police ethics, prompting grumbles in the ranks about his willingness to take officers to court for offences.

Looking further, he has outlined to the Star-Times a plan to focus on the very core of police functions. He foreshadows closures or downgrading of some community stations--in consultation with communities--and is reviewing police involvement in some community roles.

Meanwhile the signs of a police force cutting corners or abusing its powers keep occurring.

Whangarei has become a hot spot of concern about police violence, with lawyers banding together to monitor police. The moves follow a judge's decision to throw out a resisting arrest charge against two local teenagers on the grounds they were acting in self-defence.

In Auckland came the astonishing case last month in which three teenage girls--Lucy Akatere, Tania Vini and Krishla Fuataha--were wrongly imprisoned for seven months on the false testimony of a 13-year-old.

In Auckland, where crimes are more brutal and more frequent, the former glamour squad of the police has become a sweatshop. Detectives at the criminal investigation branch are struggling under high workloads and staff shortages.

Robinson pleads guilty to at least some of the charges that police prosecution work is getting worse.

He confirms crown solicitors have raised with him concerns about the quality of police work for "lower-end" cases, the common assaults, some dishonesty, some of the thefts and burglaries. Robinson blames overwork.

Although overall reported crime was down 2% in the year to June, calls to the police keep rising. Also on the up is violence, rising 8% in the year to June after plateauing for the previous five years.

Robinson points to areas with burgeoning populations like Auckland, north of Auckland and the Bay of Plenty. It is here that in-trays are overloading for police, he says.

"The risk that I as commissioner and we as New Zealanders face is that in those areas where we're expecting that of police staff, the risk is we will not meet our standards from time to time," says Robinson.

He believes there are common threads in the problem of poor police prosecution work, and in the case of the wrongful conviction of the three girls.

"As we work through the case with the girls, we will surface some issues I think that touch on the pressures on staff, the ability of supervisors to provide appropriate levels of supervision and direction to investigational staff when they're carrying quite serious files," he says.

But Robinson also makes a plea for more reasonable expectations from the public.

"The police expectation is the police will not get things wrong. It does fail to recognise that we are, as individual police officers, human."

"There's the tension of the public expectation of perfection, and the reality of any big organisation," he says.

Around the country, at the McDonald's franchises or pubs former senior detectives have left the force to run, the sound of "I told you so" can be faintly heard.

The wave of community policing that overtook the police in the 1990s saw a downgrading and dispersal of the prestigious but often arrogant CIB. CIB teams lead investigations into serious crimes, do the court preparatory work for the big cases and they help set the tone for the standard of investigative and preparatory work further down the chain.

Communities welcomed the new police stations in their areas and the friendly cops on the beat but decentralisation meant more jacks-of-all trades, fewer clusters of specialist crime fighters.

At the time many detectives warned that the price would be poorer investigations and more mistakes, and less ability to detect crime.

In one of Robinson's provincial police stations, a detective who doesn't want to be named talks of the series of colleagues who have left recently, burned out by a string of homicides in the area. He believes there aren't enough resources or staff to provide good community policing as well as good specialist services like the CIB.

"The CIB has been pretty much run down in a lot of ways. We're having trouble recruiting people into the CIB because there are no real incentives to be there other than pride in work. That challenge in itself can be something that can eventually wear you out,"

says the detective, who has 15 years' experience.

downgrading the CIB under community policing has taken several forms. The status of the CIB has diminished in part because allowances have been cut, from around $5000 for newly qualified detectives, to $1376.

The number of ranks has also been cut, leading to more responsibility From Focus C1

fewer senior officers. The detective senior-sergeants who were the second-in-commands on major inquiries have been largely replaced by more junior officers.

Heavier workloads at the CIB have meant some of the less serious cases the CIB used to investigate and prosecute, such as street robberies, are more likely these days to be passed on to uniformed staff.

"Basically there are not enough hours in the day to complete the work we have got. There is serious crime and you're doing other people's jobs, because they're away," says the detective.

"There seems to be a dumping of more and more responsibility on people further down the line," he says.

Other insiders say standards in prosecution work have fallen nationwide not just because of case overload but because the CIB structure has disintegrated. CIB units used to gain leadership from specialists at a national level, ensuring a rigorous standard for prosecutions was maintained around the country. Now they report to district commanders who don't take the same interest in keeping up standards, sources say.

Under Robinson's plan to refocus on core policing, the CIB is clawing back a little recognition from colleagues. An increased allowance for detectives is due to be announced in the next fortnight at a cost of millions of dollars for the police administration.

Some drawing back from community policing principles has already begun, with the regrouping of some CIB teams, rather than their dispersal to smaller stations.

David Jones from the Criminal Bar Association points to inexperience as one of the recurring problems now facing police.

"A lot of senior experience officers have left the force and that I think was a great loss to the police and the general public," he says.

Auckland's CIB squads, which are dealing with more cases and more serious cases, have less experienced officers to draw on than anywhere else in the country. It is Auckland's CIB that is under investigation for its handling of the wrongful conviction of the three teenagers.

The average length of service in the Auckland area for CIB staff is 10.1 years, compared to an average of 13.5 for the rest of the country. In the South Island, 15 or 16 years is the norm.

A less experienced force is partly a legacy of a drive in the '80s to remove a top-heavy layer of burnt-out officers. The Perf scheme did the job but is continuing to suck out older staff as they approach the cut-off age of 49.

The scheme was closed to new entrants in 1992. New staff are getting older on average but the standard contract for an officer is just 15 years, with five-yearly renewals after that.

Police human resources general manager Jon White isn't troubled by any lack of experience.

"My belief is that overall levels of experience haven't dropped significantly and certainly aren't a point of concern. What we do have to be careful of and mindful of is that we do have some areas where the average length of service is lower than others," he says, referring to two highly stressed parts of the Auckland region, North Share and Manukau.

Robinson knows the public isn't as happy as it used to be with the police. Every opportunity he gets, he asks people what they want.

They tell him three things: they want police to arrive immediately if they ring in a crisis; they want an investigation carried out if they complain of a crime; and they want the police to follow through and prosecute and preferably convict if the offendor is identified.

These three commandments are now guiding Robinson's thinking. He is preparing to draw back from the dispersed style of community policing, with all its community tasks, and towards a no-frills service to meet the core of public expectation.

Flush with extra money and 40% more staff over the 1990s, the police rolled out suburban stations and community bases. It was part of a theory that they needed to reach out to their communities in order to prevent crime.

Now the police have realised the model is too expensive. The police property portfolio of $250m incurs high maintenance costs and a $38m capital charge from the government.

Today the police have almost 300 stations and another 103 bases around the country. In the greater Auckland area they run a surprising 72 stations, in addition to five regional headquarters. McDonald's, another fixture of the suburban landscape, can manage only 58 in the same area.

Can the police sustain this many in Auckland? The blunt answer from Robinson is "no".

Across one part of the city there are something like 12 or 13 walk-in facilities within quite a small district.

"I think practically it will require communities and police to work through where they want walk-in facilities and where they're happy to have on-call police service facilities," he says.

He believes police links with communities are now so well-developed, through a variety of boards and consultative mechanisms, that bricks and mortar are no longer the only way to connect with the community.

In some cases it may mean the staffing of a community base with a community volunteer, rather than a sworn officer.

Also on Robinson's list for change is for police to consider future involvement in many of community services, such as in youth at risk programmes and classroom education.

Robinson says the public tell him it doesn't want to compromise on any of the three commandments because of what are seen as lower priority functions.

"Some of our youth at risk programmes are delivering stunning results and they are very, very sensible investments," he says.

But the police are considering handing over the lead role in the programmes to other community groups, such as iwi organisations. The police would remain involved, but at a lower level.

Similarly the police are considering whether its classroom education work is a core function.

"I'm not talking about that we'll turn it off tomorrow and go and do something else, only that we would move out of that if there were others delivering an equivalent service," says Robinson.

As he struggles to make headway with a huge bureaucracy with a very strong sense of itself, Robinson pleads for a little more trust from the public that the police will overcome its weaknesses.

"These things are worrisome each time they emerge. What I'd like is for the public to have an absolute confidence that if these matters do emerge and are raised as points of concern, that they're absolutely confident that my managers and myself will go and have a real close look. We won't be looking to just put the things aside," he says.



Kevin Stent Police commissioner Rob Robinson faces the task of restoring public confidence in his force.