Breaking the code of silence: When police speak out against their own

by North & South / 25 May, 2017
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Former detective inspector Bruce Hutton planted evidence that led to Arthur Allan Thomas being wrongly jailed for nine years.

As a peaceful resolution of a recent confrontation in Kaitaia shows, there are plenty of police officers who aim to keep the peace rather than aim a Taser.

But no greater moral courage is shown than by those who blow the whistle on colleagues they believe have acted violently. Constables like Timaru’s Paul McKay, who last year stood witness against a sergeant charged with beating a teenager black and blue (the officer involved was discharged without conviction and has since left the force).

The prosecution unsuccessfully sought name suppression for the constable, so he wouldn’t face retribution from within the force.

In 2014, three South Auckland officers reported a dog handler for kicking an offender – who was already pinned face-down – three to four times in the head. Although the victim was left bleeding and the attack was ruled unlawful by the IPCA, the dog handler was not prosecuted, nor was disciplinary action noted. The commander’s comment left no doubt as to his sympathies: “I accept that in all probability he could have used a less forceful option to ensure the offender complied with instructions.”

Speaking more plainly, former Police Association president Greg O’Connor (now possibly a future Labour Party police spokesperson) weighed in with essentially a public condemnation of the three officers’ ethical courage. He said he thought “a good proportion of New Zealanders would not have thought there was a problem… I think most experienced police officers... could empathise with the police officer [dog handler] involved.”

So, how far into the ranks does this “circle the wagons” culture extend? In 2008, also in South Auckland, two police constables admitted they had falsified reports of a 2004 incident in which a prisoner was fatally injured while trying to escape a beating by a third officer. A few years later, Mike Bush, the new district commander, claimed the incident had been investigated, and denied any culture of cover-up had operated in the Counties Manukau police district.

Bush forgot to mention the 2005 newsletter sent out by a predecessor, Steve Shortland, exhorting staff to hunt whistle-blowers as “traitors”. He also didn’t mention a 2005 formal inquiry into the culture of the Counties Manukau police district he was heading. Former judge Sir David Tompkins, who headed the inquiry, found excessive violence protected by a code of silence. His report noted that “young recruits were quickly socialised into a culture… where unless the offence was very serious, it was extremely inadvisable to blow the whistle on one’s colleagues”.

By 2013, then-Assistant Police Commissioner Bush was in line for the top police job. At the funeral of former detective inspector Bruce Hutton, who planted evidence in the Crewe murders case that led to Arthur Allan Thomas being wrongly jailed for nine years, Bush had this to say: “We all know despite the length and depth of Bruce’s term with us in the police, in the public eye he is only associated with one case. It is a great tragedy and irony that a man of such great character should have been subject to those accusations.”

Few police officers are unaware that long before the Crewe case, Hutton was legendary within the police as a leader of a hard team known for its ruthless and uncompromising methods. A year after singing the praises of Hutton, Bush was made Commissioner of Police.

And what of that brave young Timaru constable? Paul McKay has received no publicly disseminated word of praise or support from his commissioner. However Judge Raoul Neave, in declining the constable’s application for name suppression, said there was no reason for him to hide from his fellow officers.

“He should be praised, his conduct could not be more commendable, he’s the hero of this situation. If there are elements in the police force and community who think otherwise they should take a long hard look at themselves, because they are a disgrace.”

 

 

This was published in the April 2017 issue of North & South.


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