Alan Ringwood: Whangamatā unrest – is this the sort of policing we want in New Zealand?

OPINION by Alan Ringwood

I trust I was not the only one who was troubled by the stance taken by the police, and in particular the reported comments of the Eastern Waikato Area’s Police Commander, in defending the actions of one of their officers during the police’s dispersal of a group of rowdy teenagers in Whangamatā over the New Year period.

There is a video clip of the incident posted online. As a line of policemen clad in riot gear advance through the area to clear away a group of teenagers, one of the officers strides up to someone who is sitting on a fencepost facing the other way, kicks that person in the lower back and sends him (or her – it is not possible to tell) sprawling to the ground.

We have probably all seen film of law enforcement officers behaving like this, but more likely from protests in Washington DC or Portland, Oregon than from a local beach community such as Whangamatā. While some of us are old enough to remember the Red Squad – with their riot shields, helmets and long batons – behaving badly outside Eden Park in 1981, that was a long time ago, and these sorts of images are not generally ones that we associate with home.

The police have properly acknowledged that the video was “not nice to watch”. As far as an official analysis of the incident is concerned, being uncomfortable when confronted with the evidence is plainly a good start. Recognising that it was “not nice to watch” a policeman kick a youngster in the back ought to be a helpful clue – to the video’s audience amongst the police hierarchy – that something untoward had happened here; that a police officer had overstepped the mark; that one of their number might be a bit too excitable when all kitted up in anticipation of a riot; that more force than was necessary had been applied to move this particular teenager on; that a bit more training might be in order; etc.

But despite having recognised that this act of violence was not nice to watch, none of these consequential thoughts appear to have occurred to the Eastern Waikato Area’s Police Commander, who instead appears to be essentially fine with it. Some of his reported comments are worth examining. There was this: “Odds are it would be very, very difficult to say that they did not know what was coming.” Then there was: “That was one individual that was sat there obviously in defiance of police instructions.”

As someone who, in 1981, sat for a short while with a bunch of other students in the intersection of Queen St and Wellesley St, temporarily inconveniencing some motorists in protest at the Springbok Tour until I was moved on by the police, I can certainly say that I “did not know” that an unexpected kick in the lower back from a policeman’s boot was what would be coming my way had I continued to sit there in defiance of police instructions. I imagined that I might be carted away if I stayed put; but not that I might be assaulted. And I don’t suppose a teenager sitting on a fence post in Whangamatā was knowingly signing up for a kicking from the constabulary either, even if it is correct that he or she was sitting there “defiantly”.

It is important to stress that none of this is to condone the unlawful actions of revellers in Whangamatā that day, some of whom were violent, including towards the police, with a substantial number of bottles being thrown and a fair amount of property damage by all accounts, none of which is remotely acceptable.

The point however, when it comes to law enforcement, is that we should want those who are enforcing the law to do so lawfully, and not to use unnecessary or excessive force, so that there is a clear distinction between those who are enforcing the law and those who are breaking it, and so that the rule of law can thereby claim the moral high ground. It’s bad enough for a policeman to approach a youngster who is sitting on a fence post and boot them in the back, no matter how defiantly the youngster may have been sat there. But it’s more troubling when the police hierarchy is reportedly comfortable with that conduct, and publicly defends and excuses it, rather than admitting that it was inappropriate conduct, or even advising that it will look into it.

Dealing with disturbances and breaches of the peace is not always easy for the police, and it might seem important to a police inspector to be seen to defend his men when one of them goes a bit awry in the heat of the moment. But there is more at stake, and a police inspector has a bigger responsibility: to the community that the police serve.

The question – or, at least, one of the questions – that arises here is whether this is the sort of policing that we want in New Zealand. We can see from overseas that when law enforcement officers get it into their heads that they are entitled to be violent towards members of the public it can be a slippery slope. The correct answer, in my view, is not to turn a blind eye to it.

Alan Ringwood recently retired after a long career as a partner at the Auckland office of law firm Bell Gully. He was for many years the Herald’s editorial lawyer.

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