Garth George: Greens' criticism of covert police surveillance a fair cop

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Back in October I suggested that when the new broom took over the levers of power at the election, the first thing it should sweep away is the Commissioner of Police and his cronies and replace them with real policemen.

Mind you, that could be difficult. There may not be any senior policemen left who are unpolluted by the political correctness, politicisation and revenue-gathering obsession that have corrupted the force in the past 10 years.

But something needs to be done - and urgently - in view of reports this week of police planting a paid informer in protest groups.

It is all very well for Prime Minister John Key and Police Minister Judith Collins to express misgivings about this spying on the public, but Mr Key's refusal to intervene is inexcusable.

I never thought I'd see the day when I would agree with Green MP Keith Locke, but when he describes the police surveillance as Stasi tactics and covert political operations that undermine democracy, I have no choice.

Because he's right. The planting of informers into protest groups such as Greenpeace, animal rights and climate-change campaigners and Iraq war protesters is a heinous breach of the sacred democratic principle of free association.

But that's only half of it. Spying on community groups because one or two members might be considered to be security threats is properly the responsibility of the Security Intelligence Service, not the police.

Just as the investigation and prosecution of white-collar crime is the responsibility of the Serious Fraud Office and not the police, who have nevertheless done their damnedest to take it over.

Fortunately, the National Government has put the kibosh on the disbanding of the SFO, but both that and the spying by the police Special Investigations Group are symptomatic of bureaucratic empire-building.

It cuts no ice with me when Mr Key and Ms Collins say they cannot interfere in police operational matters. This is nonsense because for the past nine years the Labour Administration had no such scruples.

That epidemic of political interference in police matters has to be rooted out. And a good start could be made by getting rid of civilian bureaucrats from positions of influence, up to and including a civilian assistant commissioner.

Because that, for my money, is where the rot started and it has spread like wildfire throughout the force in all its politicised and politically correct glory.

And while we're busy reorganising the NZ Police, let's set about separating traffic control from the rest of the force's activities.

I'm not suggesting that traffic policing be returned to a separate entity (or entities) as it used to be, but that traffic policing, road safety et al be confined to a dedicated division.

That division - call it Highway Patrol perhaps - should be plainly seen to be separate - separately commanded and with different-coloured vehicles and uniforms, preferably black and white.

It is surely evidence of something seriously rotten in the state of our policing that the independent police watchdog has received 2073 complaints against police in the past year - thought to be the highest number ever. And that of that number a whopping 1690 have been accepted for investigation.

The most common complaints were about police failing to investigate or inadequately investigating a case; failing to provide medical assistance, water or food; bad language or attitude; or the use of physical force.

There is no surprise in the first of these and it's the one that concerns me the most. For, among other things, it makes nonsense out of statistics which often show that crime figures have eased in various areas.

The fact is that a lot of people don't even bother to report minor crimes, such as burglaries, thefts, shoplifting and so on, because they know the police either won't even turn up or, if they do, will treat the matter cursorily.

That's not because there aren't enough police; it's because the frontline police we do have are so busy paper-shuffling (another curse of the bureaucratic mindset) that they don't have time to investigate crime.

I wonder, too, at the emphasis on crime prevention, which seems to me to be a huge waste of time and resources since very little crime gets prevented.

It is tragic that the highest esteem in which our police force was once held has been so eroded by mismanagement and misdirection that public confidence in this fundamental service is lower than it has ever been.

This sad state of affairs requires strong, decisive and thorough action.

What we need is a full-scale independent inquiry into the NZ Police - preferably a Royal Commission - to get to the bottom of this near-fatal malaise.

In a democracy, we deserve nothing less.

garth.george@hotmail.com

- NZ Herald

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