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?