Editorial: Police chief right to back Urewera team

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Police Commissioner Peter Marshall. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Police Commissioner Peter Marshall. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Once the Independent Police Conduct Authority report into the Urewera raids is released, it is expected the Police Commissioner, Peter Marshall, will visit Ruatoki to attempt to repair relations. Achieving some degree of rapprochement will not have been made any easier by his statement last week after the jailing for 2 years of activist Tame Iti and co-defendant Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara.

The Tuhoe leader, Tamati Kruger, said the fate of the pair, who were convicted of five firearms charges and one charge of unlawfully possessing Molotov cocktails, had flabbergasted the iwi. The likelihood of a cooler reception does not mean, however, that the commissioner erred. Indeed, his forthrightness in putting the police perspective was welcome.

Mr Marshall expressed regret for the impact that the Urewera investigation had on the Ruatoki community, specifically people who had been inconvenienced, distressed or made fearful by the police conduct when search warrants were executed in October 2007.

But he made "absolutely no apology" for the investigation, the arrests and the prosecution.

This had not been targeted at any iwi in particular, he said. But it involved people in possession of Molotov cocktails who were talking about killing people. They had brought shame to the people of Ruatoki, said the commissioner, adding that no other police organisation in the world would have stood by and not dealt with such a situation.

Mr Marshall's strong words provided further insight into what was going on in the Ureweras. That is important because until relatively recently, much of that picture had been painted by Iti, others in the group and their supporters, even though they have never explained exactly what they were up to. As Mr Marshall said, their suggestion that they were training for security work in Iraq had virtually no credibility given their physical condition.

The commissioner's statement complements others that provide added weight for the police's action. It should not be forgotten that during the long-running judicial process the Solicitor-General concluded the police had a "sufficient and proper basis" for concern about what was happening in the Ureweras.

And in sentencing Iti and Kemara, Justice Rodney Hansen completely rejected any innocent explanation for the group's training camps. "In effect, a private militia was being established," he said. "Whatever the justification, that is a frightening prospect in our society, undermining our democratic institutions, and anathema to our way of life."

Mr Marshall was clear in his apology to innocent families in Ruatoki, and especially children, caught up in the raids when the so-called Urewera four and 14 others were arrested. But, interestingly, he also hinted that the degree of trauma experienced by the community could have been overstated. The Independent Police Conduct Authority had photographs of children on swings at that time and photographs of a young man playing a guitar, he noted. It falls to the authority to gauge just how far the police overstepped the mark. It is due to report soon.

Many of the commissioner's predecessors would have steered clear of such a pungent defence of police conduct. They would have held their counsel or uttered comments that said little and conveyed even less. They would have received no thanks from the police officers in the front line who, often unfairly, take the flak. The morale in the service will be all the better for Mr Marshall's words.

So is the public understanding of what motivated the police to act as they did in the Ureweras.

- NZ Herald

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