Editorial: Choice of top cop opens a can of worms

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The Government has selected Mike Bush from a shortlist of three to lead the police for three years. Photo / APN
The Government has selected Mike Bush from a shortlist of three to lead the police for three years. Photo / APN

The appointment of a new Commissioner of Police should be aimed primarily at benefiting the public, not just the police and politicians.

Unfortunately for our latest chief constable, Mike Bush, his tenure is marked from the outset by being seen as a man appointed for the latter two considerations ahead of his value to public confidence in the police.

It was never going to be otherwise from the moment, as a Deputy Commissioner, he eulogised in the unwisest terms a disgraced former officer who planted evidence against Arthur Allan Thomas in what remains one of the country's most notorious injustices.

Mr Bush's claim at former Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton's funeral that he was a man of "great character" - after decades of public knowledge to the contrary - said more about Mr Bush and his version of police culture than it did to rehabilitate the dead man.

When his comments were made public, the unavoidable conclusion was reached that what was done by Mr Hutton was either okay by a current police chief, was not accepted as true by that police chief or could be swept aside by highlighting unconnected "character" references from some old personnel file.

None of those scenarios bear thinking about. Mr Bush was unrepentant at the time, saying he was referring to that praise from an old file and was doing his personal duty to the family of Mr Hutton.

Now Commissioner Peter Marshall is going and the Government has selected Mr Bush from a shortlist of three to replace him to lead the police for three years. The inevitable questions have been asked of Mr Bush about that eulogy and how his appointment portrays the police culture of 2014.

His response is a one-dimensional apology of sorts - "I actually apologise for any offence that was caused" - which seems to repeat the original fob-off.

Police Minister Anne Tolley is all wise in hindsight about the officer misjudging that funeral speech and realising his error.

But what really can the Government be thinking? Mr Bush is a known favourite of some influential politicians from his time running South Auckland police. Any politician would have known the reputational risks for the police of promoting a man who had so misjudged the concepts of loyalty, integrity and accountability.

So, knowing the risks to the image of the force, the Government set its jaw and decided either that Mr Bush was so good - or the other two contenders so inferior - that the public praise for an officer who was found by a royal commission of inquiry to have planted a cartridge case to secure a conviction did not overwhelm his claim to the top job.

It is to be hoped there was real debate over that issue before last week's announcement.

Uncomfortably, a police internal review of how officers handled the Crewe murder inquiry and the prosecution of Mr Thomas is ongoing. The new commissioner will have no involvement, because of his prejudicial remarks, but an internal process that already had its critics just became harder to persuade, let alone convince, New Zealanders they can have confidence in the police.

Mr Bush is an experienced police executive, no doubt with a good personnel file of his own, and will win favour from within the ranks. That show of wagon-circling on behalf of the police family will have a superficial attraction.

What happens, however, if the police face allegations of malpractice or of not doing enough to weed out attitudes of "what goes on duty stays on duty"? What if the Crewe murders review finds that the police of the time and Mr Hutton in particular did create injustice and didn't act with great character? A half-hearted apology might not be enough then.

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