Editorial: Autonomy essential for police authority

When the first word of an authority's name is police, there is fertile ground for confusion. The body can too readily be perceived to be part of the Police Department. When the procedures of that authority involve the police investigating complaints against themselves, the unfortunate link is strengthened. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Police Complaints Authority has been fighting since its establishment in 1988 to convince the public of its independence.

It has been a losing battle. Public confidence in the authority has been eroded to such an extent that doubts about its impartiality, and cynicism about its findings, are widespread. The authority's use of police officers to investigate the shooting by a fellow policeman of Steven Wallace could just be the final straw.

Certainly, the strong feelings aroused by the Waitara shooting have persuaded the acting Minister of Justice, Margaret Wilson, that the authority needs to be reviewed. She will recommend that course to the minister, Phil Goff, when he returns from overseas. Any review would focus on two main issues. First, there is the authority's reliance on police officers to carry out investigations, a situation reflecting the authority's slimline $800,000 budget. The second focus would be the secrecy which pervades the authority's work.

Under its founding act, it is required to conduct inquiries "in private" and to "maintain secrecy." No statement made to the authority can later be used in a court case. Such secrecy, essentially to protect police officers, is clearly at odds with society's greater emphasis on openness and accountability.

To compound this culture, the authority issues few public reports. Last year, it released just four although it accepted 2076 complaints against police for investigation. Brief resumes of 30 others were included in its annual report. Such reticence is puzzling, given that the Police Complaints Authority Act gives it the right to publish reports on any case which it considers "in the public interest."

The ability to call upon its own investigators for major inquiries would be the quickest way to attack the perception that the authority has little option but to accept what the police say at face value. At the moment, the staff of the authority, Judge Jaine, includes a deputy authority, three investigative reviewers and the equivalent of three full-time secretaries. Independence for the authority would obviously entail a trebling or quadrupling of its budget. For the cost to be kept to reasonable proportions, police investigators would still be needed for all but the major crimes.

The Police Association wonders whether independent investigators would be as effective as police officers in getting to the bottom of complaints. Perhaps it also worries that over-zealous investigators could make the police tentative in their dealings with criminals. Overriding such concerns, however, should be a recognition that the police have a statutory requirement to cooperate with the authority.

It is also worth recalling that it is only two years since a police review suggested the Government should consider "enhancing the independent status of the authority," giving it the money it needed to carry out its own investigations. That recommendation, part of a cost-cutting drive, was not acted on.

The Waitara shooting has, however, heightened the climate of disillusionment. Clearly, the authority will capture public esteem only when it is able to call upon independent investigators. The expense need not be huge. Such investigators could be used only for serious crimes, perhaps those involving death or serious criminal charges. Their presence would provide not only a safeguard but the foundation for increased public confidence in the police. And for the police, there will surely be greater satisfaction spending more time catching criminals than investigating fellow-officers.

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