Catriona MacLennan: Hand the top cop role to a woman

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Photo / File
Photo / File

Has there never, in the history of New Zealand, been a woman or non-Pakeha person qualified to be Commissioner of Police?

Apparently not, if the latest appointment to the top police job is anything to go by.

When the incoming Mike Bush takes up his position on April 3, he will be the country's 32nd police commissioner.

He will also be its 32nd male, Pakeha commissioner. New Zealand has never had a woman or non-Pakeha top cop.

Police commissioners are appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, with the appointment process being managed by the State Services Commissioner.

The Policing Act 2008 states the commissioner is responsible to the Police Minister for:

• Carrying out the functions and duties of the police.

• The general conduct of the police.

• The effective, efficient and economical management of the police.

• Tendering advice to ministers.

• Giving effect to any lawful ministerial directions.

But the commissioner, and the police as a whole, can only do their jobs properly if the public has confidence in them.

New Commissioner of Police Mike Bush will be the 32nd Pakeha male in the role.
New Commissioner of Police Mike Bush will be the 32nd Pakeha male in the role.

One of the first events which profoundly shook the confidence of New Zealanders in the police was the planting of a .22 rifle cartridge by Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton and a colleague during the course of the Crewe murder inquiry in 1970. Despite the length of time which has passed since then, the action was so shocking that its ramifications still cast a shadow over New Zealanders' views of the police to this day. In the past decade, the Urewera raids and revelations about police failure to investigate properly allegations of sexual assault against police officers and associates have again shaken trust in the police.

A 2006 opinion poll found that public confidence in the police had slumped in the preceding 12 months, with more than a quarter of respondents saying their trust in the force had diminished. The 2007 report of the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct identified systemic issues and behavioural patterns as causes of the failure to deal properly with sexual assault allegations. Dame Margaret Bazley made 47 recommendations for changes by the police. However, ongoing monitoring of progress in implementing the suggestions has shown only glacial advances. A January 2011 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers said some measures had been implemented to achieve "technical compliance" with the report, but fundamental change had not occurred. Worryingly, the study described some officers as still "poisoning the well", a clear indication of management failure. The report also stated that some staff at the police college and training service centre were inappropriate role models.

A further report by the Auditor-General, released in October 2012, revealed progress in acting on Dame Margaret's recommendations was mixed, leadership challenges remained and most of the 47 recommendations had not been acted upon.

The persistence of inappropriate attitudes at the highest levels of the police force appears to have been confirmed by more recent incidents. In September last year, Central District Commander Superintendent Russell Gibson was forced to apologise after describing a 10-year-old rape victim as a "willing participant" in her sexual abuse.

Following the Roast Busters' revelations last year, police initially said no girl had been "brave enough" to make a formal complaint. When that turned out to be wrong, outgoing commissioner Peter Marshall cast doubt on the evidential value of one complaint, leaving the public wondering exactly what would be required for the police to act.

And incoming Police Commissioner Mike Bush delivered a eulogy at Mr Hutton's funeral last year in which he described the deceased officer as having "integrity beyond reproach" and being of "great character".

The appointment of a new commissioner was a significant opportunity for the New Zealand Police to try to draw a line under these damaging events and seek to rebuild public confidence in the force.

But that chance has been squandered by the appointment of Mr Bush, who has shown he has yet to accept police failures from 44 years ago.

How, then, can the public expect that he will be any more willing to acknowledge and address more recent shortcomings on the part of the police?

The new commissioner appears to be in the same mould as other recent appointments - defensive and protective of the police at all costs. That is not what is required. Someone is needed who can reach out, particularly to women and Maori, acknowledging the mistakes of the past and demonstrating a willingness to make significant improvements now.

It seems plain that the appointment criteria for the job of police commissioner are far too narrow.

Time for a woman - or, even better - a non-Pakeha woman to be appointed as this country's top cop.

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister and the presenter of Womenpower on Sky Channel 83.

- NZ Herald

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