Unfettered police power a danger to all of us

Much has been made of the failure of three high-profile prosecutions in the last two weeks. In the cases of Chris and Cru Kahui, Charlene Makaza and farmer Jack Nicholas, juries acquitted those the police had charged with murder.

Some have suggested Crown prosecutors are to blame because they decided to proceed with murder trials while others have suggested the police botched the investigations by building cases against the accused before gathering all the relevant evidence. There may well be some truth in this with closed minds delivering self-fulfilling prophecies.

Setting up a public prosecutions office independent of the police as other countries have has been suggested. This would help and deserves serious consideration. However it seems each case was largely based on circumstantial evidence and the prosecution failure rate in such cases will always be higher.

Of more concern should be the announcement 10 days ago of the police intention to use the Bushmaster rifle as their preferred weapon (in place of the Glock pistol) in response to possible armed situations, golf clubs and hammers included. Previously this weapon was available to the Armed Offenders Squad but now all frontline police are to be trained to use these high-powered semi-automatic weapons. 

This decision has had no independent, democratic oversight. There has been no public discussion nor obvious political involvement. No submissions were requested, no other opinions sought. It was an in-house decision.

The timing of the announcement tells the same story. It was dropped into the dead-news time of 2.30pm on a Friday afternoon to avoid the glare of the public spotlight. The release itself was made to look innocuous with the focus on training needed to implement the decision. The police didn’t want media scrutiny. Their focus was to manage public perception rather than encourage public input or public debate on a sensitive topic.

However decisions to escalate the arming of the police are decisions in which we all have a big stake. They are not simply operational decisions for the police alone. They go to the very heart of the relationship between the police and the community and yet we are politely being told to butt out by the top brass.

With more powerful weapons more readily available they inevitably come to be used as the first response rather than as a later response. We have seen this with the police use of pepper-spray where the original guidelines have gone out the window and it is now used liberally by front line police.

Safeguarding the police and community is best served by careful, independent oversight of decisions about the arms police carry and wide public discussion.

Many overseas police forces are a law unto themselves and there are plenty of danger signs our police force feels similarly. For example as well as the latest announcement the decision to trial taser stun guns was made by the police who then announced they would consult with the community – yeah right!

Anti-democratic tendencies such as these are never far from the surface in policing. The lack of respect for democratic protest has been well documented in cases such as the police abuse of the rights of demonstrators protesting against Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1999.

Similarly their dramatic overreaction in the so-called anti-terror raids last October should give us all pause for thought.

Meanwhile Labour and National politicians work hard to outdo each other in ever more extreme policies to curb crime.

Labour has a Criminal Proceeds Recovery Bill before parliament which would allow police to seize property allegedly from the proceeds of crime. They won’t require proof, just probabilities. Government Minister Phil Goff has said the new law “targets people who have not been convicted because the police have not been able to reach the standard of proof in a criminal court”. This should be a huge concern to us all. It extends police power to work outside the court system and would allow them to impose their own sentence on top of a court imposed punishment on the basis of suspicion alone.

National Party leader John Key spoke recently to the misnamed Sensible Sentencing Trust and proposed another round of even more extreme policies to widen police powers which include allowing surveillance without warrants and the forcible taking of DNA samples from people charged with offences punishable by imprisonment. Almost any offence in other words.

Given their recent track record the police are lucky they won’t have to prove anything to use these proposed new powers but we should all be concerned at any extension to unfettered state power over our lives.