Rodney Hide: No police apology means no reason to trust them

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Bruce Hutton at the Crewe house during the 1970 murder investigation. File photo / NZ Herald
Bruce Hutton at the Crewe house during the 1970 murder investigation. File photo / NZ Herald

I remember it very clearly. That policeman standing in the Rangiora District Court very authoritatively, very methodically consulting his trusty notebook to give his evidence.

I was there, having bunked school. It was a big deal for us. Dad was at grave risk of losing his driver's licence and therefore his job.

The policeman flipping the pages of his notebook told the judge that the car my father rear-ended had pulled off to the side of Southbrook Rd.

Lucky for us, Dad had come home that Saturday morning and grabbed me along with our old Kodak Instamatic camera. Dad's determination to take photos surprised me: our camera only ever came out for weddings and funerals. We took pictures of the car paint along his truck's front bumper and the long skid marks down the road that 22 tyres make when all the brakes are applied.

Our local policeman was at the accident scene, too, with a big tape measure. I remember holding one end for him as he measured the length of the skid marks and their distance from the side of the road. He wrote the measurements in his policeman's notebook.

It was the only accident my father had in a lifetime of full-time driving. It troubled him. His instinct was not to trust the police. His instinct was right.

The good judge looked hard at my father's photographic evidence. It proved that the car had stopped in the middle of the road. The photos proved that policeman's evidence false. The judge accepted Dad's testimony that the car had stopped suddenly without apparent reason. He admonished the police for not telling the truth and let Dad go with his licence intact.

That day I learned two lifelong lessons: one, the authorities can't be relied upon. And two, it always pays to have your own hard evidence, just in case.

WE ADMIRE and respect the police. And so we should. It's their job to head into danger and physical confrontation, day in, day out. They do so to protect us from thugs and bullies and to rescue us from danger. But our admiration and our respect too often blind us to police failings.

The police force is a human organisation and runs the risk that all organisations confront: poor culture, bad apples, errors of judgment and mistakes. This week a State Services Commission report found police culture is improving, after public concern prompted by historic police rape and cover-up allegations.

We have mechanisms to counter failings within other organisations. We don't with the police. We have the Independent Police Complaints Authority but, sadly, the authority is insufficient to counter our ready willingness to support the police.

The problem starts at the top. The political definition of a good Police Minister is one who backs the police, no matter what. That's not the case for any other minister. Other ministers must look past their department to the service they are actually providing. Not so the Police Minister. One minister I recall went so far as to talk of "my police".

Opposition MPs must be wary of criticising the police. I once applied gentle Parliamentary scrutiny to police behaviour only to have the Minister easily knock me back as being anti-police and soft on crime. There's also no proper media critique of police performance. That's because the police are the best source of the juiciest and easiest stories. Journalists, naturally, don't want to turn off the flow of information.

The police lack proper public checks and balances. That's not healthy for the police or for us. The problem is not a recent one.

The 1980 Royal Commission into the wrongful conviction of Arthur Allan Thomas for the 1970 killings of Harvey and Jeannette Crewe declared that "[Detective Inspector Bruce] Hutton and [Detective Lenrick] Johnson planted the shellcase, exhibit 350, in the Crewe garden and that they did so to manufacture evidence that Mr Thomas' rifle had been used in the killings".

It's hard to imagine a more damning finding from the highest possible level of inquiry a government can undertake. And what happened? Nothing. No police officer charged. No changes to police culture or operation. No police apology.

I suspect the police never accepted the Royal Commission's findings. And there lies the problem.

Every murder conviction that lacks a smoking gun or a clear confession is now suspect. The police planted evidence once. Nothing happened. Therefore, they are capable of doing so again.

Police top brass this week patted themselves on the back following a report that "paints a picture of an impartial, corruption-free, independent and high-performing police service".

I'll believe it when the police apologise for planting that cartridge and lay charges against those responsible.

Until that happens my view of the police remains exactly the one I formed as a schoolboy.

- Herald on Sunday

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