When they finally complete criminal proceedings against the last four defendants of the "Urewera 18", I hope there's a public enquiry into police behaviour.
This saga has dragged on for four years and, quite predictably, most of the charges have now been dropped. It seems as if the police got so excited by the prospect of uncovering real-life terrorists in Aotearoa that they forgot about the basics: like actual evidence of a crime.
I cannot comment on the charges pending against the last four, though with the history of the case to date one could probably predict the outcome with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
This is not the only instance where police heavy-handedness has recently come to the fore. I know that the cops do a tough job, but sometimes they make mistakes. We all do. But we can learn a lot by looking at how an organisation reacts to its mistakes. The fact that in a number of recent high-profile cases the police just simply cannot accept blame for poor decision-making suggests there is a real lack of accountability within police leadership.
Take the example of Arie Smith-Voorkamp, an autistic man arrested for flogging some light fittings and then put through the legal wringer by police. There were also allegations of police brutality in that case, though they have never been substantiated. But it was obvious to just about everyone who knew anything about the case, apart from police and Michael Laws, that the prosecution of the man was obscene, pointless and vindictive. It indicated above all a complete unwillingness by police to accept that a mistake had been made.
In the case of Smith-Voorkamp, if police had dropped the charges early there would have been few recriminations. The unsubstantiated account of a police beating aside (and there's no point in going there when police deny the claim and when the alleged victim of the beating won't press the matter), the public would have been quite understanding of cops taking a hard-line against people they perceived as looters in the aftermath of the Christchurch quake. But charges should have been dropped once it was clear Smith-Voorkamp wasn't your typical looter Except that would have been an admission by the police hierarchy that they make mistakes and are human. Heaven forfend that such a thing could happen!
Tiki Taane's arrest because he had the temerity to sing "F**k the Police" in a bar where police were present, is just as troubling. Again, it was reasonably clear from the first moment charges were announced that police were being vindictive. Eventually sanity prevailed and the charges were dropped, but only after months of anxiety for the entertainer.
In the latter cases errors made by frontline police (in some cases understandable errors) have been made worse by the intransigence of those higher up in the force.
And in all of the cases mentioned the one word we won't hear from police is "sorry."
So there's something going wrong, and this total unwillingness to accept blame suggests police management may be suffering from major internal strife. In an organisation that functions well mistakes are dealt with properly and the people who make them are properly managed and given the tools they need to reduce the risk of future errors. Those who can't or won't improve are moved on.
In a dysfunctional organisation nobody wants to admit they stuffed up, because the knives will be out in a flash. Errors, or perceived errors, are punished with demotions or by career stagnation, and this leads to a culture of denial and factionalism, where different groups work against each other, making accountability difficult.
I don't have any personal knowledge of the internal goings-on of police, but I've worked with a lot of organisations, and the police culture of refusing to accept responsibility for obvious mistakes speaks to me of a system where those who stuff up are protected and where mistakes are concealed and denied.
The Urewera 18 trials, though, are a very public example of this inability to admit they were wrong. Police went in too hard, on flimsy evidence, but when it became clear that the criminal activity, if any, they were pursuing was small-scale and when they should have just abandoned the entire exercise as a waste of time, money and resources, they just couldn't admit they were wrong.
This behaviour needs to change. A public enquiry into police culture would be a start.