Saturday, 24 January 2009

Jumping to conclusions

We now know that yesterday's shooting on Auckland's Northwestern motorway claimed the life of Halatau Naitoko. The 17 year old worked as a courier, and had the terrible misfortune to be driving past as gunfire was exchanged by police and an unnamed man, shooting from his pursuing vehicle. Police have conceded that the bullet which killed the young bystander was one of their own.

In the next few days, evidence will be reviewed and souls will be searched.* Judith Collins, in a moment of uncharacteristic dignity, offered condolences to the distraught Naitoko family in her capacity as Minister of Police. The Police themselves have been circumspect, responding sensitively and beginning an investigation into their officers' actions. And then, in contrast, there was Greg O'Connor, speaking on behalf of the Police Association.

On tonight's news, O'Connor launched into a spirited defence of the police officers who inadvertently killed Halatau - before the officers had been accused. In fact, his insistence that the officers did nothing wrong and were simply doing their jobs was a little over the top.

The Police Association is a strange beast. On one hand, it's a union, with the obligation to support its members which that entails. On the other, the Association often makes statements supporting the Police force itself - in a way that the New Zealand Nurses' Organisation would not be called on to justify the existence of nursing, for example.

So O'Connor has his work cut out for him. But, whatever the difficulties of his job, he could surely have done better than tonight's rant: he came across as though he was saying, 'Sorry, Naitoko family, but there are bad guys out there - and your son was collateral damage'. It's too soon to say what exactly transpired out there on the motorway on that hot afternoon. It may be that procedures weren't followed. It may be that procedures were followed, but the procedures themselves are inadequate. At this stage, no one knows. It's imperative that neither the Police officers' employer or union hangs them out to dry - whatever they may or may not have done, they're entitled to their union's support - but there are other issues of public welfare and sensitivity to the Naitoko family at stake. I don't expect an elaborate social commentary from O'Connor, but he could have been a little more restrained, offering support for his members in a way that conveyed more compassion for Halatau and his family.

This is the source of a slight unease I have with unions (although I've always been, and will remain, a union member). Their mandate is to protect their members, and other concerns may be overlooked in the process. I belonged for some years to a union, many of whose members were motivated primarily by self-interest. Some members were openly contemptuous of the idea of solidarity with other unions and workers: they were in it for the pay increases only. It was a kind of individualistic collective with little sense of social responsibility.

By jumping to conclusions, defending his members too aggressively and too soon, Greg O'Connor and the Police Association risk portraying this awful event as a moralistic tale of cop good guys versus criminal bad guys in which the ends always justify the means. As a union, even of an unusual sort, the Police Association has some obligation towards social responsibility - and in this case, social responsibility means being open to a mature conversation about the role of Police, the use of firearms, and the place of violence in our society.

* Will we hear a challenge to the Police's actions from Garth McVicar and the Sensible Sentencing Trust?


Anna said...

If any of you clever THM ladies is about, you're welcome to fold this back for me!

Brett Dale said...

I wonder how long it will take to turn this tragic accident into an anti police thing.

Hugh said...

Brett, if we can't get upset at the police when they shoot somebody who hasn't done anything, when can we legitimately get upset at them?

Psycho Milt said...

If we're avoiding jumping to conclusions, let's add the missing third option: it's possible that procedures were followed and that procedures were entirely adequate, but that shit happens. It's just a pity our law doesn't allow for booking this death up to the ambulatory excrement who's actually responsible for it.

Anna said...

Psycho, the whole point of the Police is to mitigate shit when it happens to protect the public. That's not always possible, but it's a legitimate community expectation that the Police will minimise harm and not actively inflict it.

There's clearly a problem with dismissing any harm which occurs in trying to apprehend a suspect as 'shit happening' - it would give the Police justification to act as they please, without regard for public safety.

My friend's sister called the Police to protect her after yet another incident of violence by her partner. The Police told her that if she didn't press charges this time, they'd charge her with wasting the Police's time. That's what happens when you focus too narrowly on catching the bad guys and not enough on the broader welfare issues. The ends don't always justify the means.

And we don't know that the gunman in this case wasn't a person with a mental illness. Let's reserve judgement on this 'excrement' until we've got a basis for judgement.

Brett Dale said...


It was an accident, I just hope the media and certain sectors of the public dont use this to ruin a police officers life.

Hugh said...


Do you have some kind of inside knowledge? How exactly do you know this was an accident where nobody was to blame?

Anna said...

Brett, I'm sure the Police officer didn't set out to kill Halatau, but it's really important that incidents like these undergo scrutiny, so what went wrong can be identified and the appropriate steps taken to minimise the chances it will happen again.

I don't think anyone should set out to ruin the life of the Police officer involved, but if he didn't act with the appropriate diligence then he should face appropriate disciplinary action. And if this happened because the procedures were wrong, that has to be addressed too.

The public has a right to expect accountability measures - but these don't have to be carried out in an unnecessarily punitive way.

Anita said...

Greg O'Connor has a particular knack for coming out in full-one defensive battle kit on every single issue. This has two major downsides, the first is that it makes it sound like someone is attacking Police Officers even when no-one has. Secondy he usually manages to say something inflammatory and so cause someone to attack him (and his Police Officers).

So somehow O'Connor creates the media and public attacks on Police Officers that he is supposed to be defending them from.

Even further off topic, one of my favourite memories of handing out leaflets about the John Dewar trial was a woman stopping just so she could tell me just how awful Greg O'Connor was. Somehow in the midst of all the noise about police rape cases and cover-ups and politicians trying to get in on the action Greg O'Connor still managed to stand out as particularly appalling and offensive.

Anita said...

I just checked, and yep the first quote in the first article about the Police Association's response bugged me:

"That Mr Naitoko was hit by a police bullet is a doubly cruel blow not only for his family, but also for police.

How can O'Connor possibly equate the suffering of the Police to the suffering of the family of a man who was killed?!

What is it that makes him say things like that, let alone put them in a press release?

Brett Dale said...

I will judge this on facts, unlike the media who will use emotion.

Psycho Milt said...'s a legitimate community expectation that the Police will minimise harm and not actively inflict it.

Indeed. As you wrote, it's possible that procedures weren't followed, or were inadequate. No doubt an investigation will discover whether either or both of those is the case. But if we're avoiding jumping to conclusions, we have to accept the possibility that procedures were adequate and were followed, and this is just bad luck.

Anna said...

Yes, but whatever conclusion is drawn should be based on evidence - that's why it's premature, as well as insensitive, for Greg O'Connor to announce the Police involved are blameless.

Hugh said...

we have to accept the possibility that procedures were adequate and were followed, and this is just bad luck.

Milt, if I were to tell one of the applicants who speaks to me every day to complain about our procedures that they're fine and we just got unlucky, they'd flay me alive, and conservatives such as yourself would line up behind them to have a go. And quite rightly, too.

One thing I do find admirable about the new right ideology is the idea that we should never stop demanding accountability from the public service. It's just a shame this attitude always falls by the wayside when the public service in question involves men with guns.

If IRD or CYFS were to say 'we fucked up, but our procedures are fine, the fuck up is just bad luck and thus we're not going to change anything' they would be slaughtered by conservatives as unaccountable mandarins obsessed with feathering their own nests. I don't see why the police should be any different.

Anna said...

Good example, Hugh - when CYFS fucks up, no excuse is ever accepted or even tendered. Any single fuck-up from CYFS is one too many. That's as it ought to be - some things (and the welfare of children is one of them) are too important to take risks over.

Dave said...

Maybe we should wait and find out what actually happened. The poilce concerened would have had a mere spilt seconds to evaluate the situation and to decide weather or not to aim and fire their guns. No doubt the actions of the police, over those spilt seconds, will be gone over for hours upon hours upon hours by people sitting in their air-conditioned offices, and with plenty of hindsite thrown in for good measure.

Psycho Milt said...

...conservatives such as yourself...

Now now, there's no need for personal abuse.

No doubt you do feel that these over-paid bureaucrats who only have to go out and stop armed, drug-crazed munters on the rampage have a cushy number compared the sore trials you are subjected to on a daily basis, Hugh. I do find it difficult to escape the suspicion though, that if the coppers had stood about pleading no clear field of fire while Munter shot the truck driver and continued on his rampage, the left-wing blogosphere wouldn't be any happier with them. It's like watching a kind of mirror image of Greg O'Connor, in which the cops can do no right.

Anna said...

I actually have a lot of sympathy for the officers in question - I very much doubt they set out to do harm or were negligent. Even in the peaceful socialist utopia that exists only in my mind, people would occasionally go nutty, and someone would be called on to forcibly restrain them to protect the public. So I don't think the officers are inherently terrible people or anything like that. But the fact remains that whenever there is a workplace injury or death, the procedures and actions which led to it must be scrutinised so a repetition can hopefully be avoided.

Julie said...

No media statement from Sensible Sentencing Trust on this yet (although they did put one out yesterday on child welfare agencies). I did find this odd media statement from a Dr Michael Kidd though.

Greg O'Connor is a constant source of high blood pressure for me. As a unionist I can understand the need to defend and protect the workers you represent, and their profession. But O'Connor often seems to go above and beyond. My understanding is that the Police Association has been one of the main stumbling points to putting in place any kind of code of conduct or ethics for the police. Compare this with the attitude of the teachers unions (one of whom I work for, I should say in the interests of disclosure) and nurses organisation, who take an active interest in upholding professional standards.

Julie said...

And readers here may be interested in the discussion Idiot/Savant and others have been having about whether or not the officer involved should stand trial. Links can be found in this post at No Right Turn.

Julie said...

And because I am totally trying to dominate this thread, here's a post by Anita on the issue of health and safety in these circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the Police Association is a union as we know it. A friend is a member, from what she has told me the organisation very much works alongside the employer and presidents such as Greg O'Connor will go from the association to a top job in the police and thus are always going to be on the side of the boss.