Last Saturday, in the middle of the Easter holiday, the main highway north of Auckland was closed for 12 hours while police investigated a crime. Twelve hours. True it was a serious crime, a homicide, and a police officer had done the shooting. But 12 hours?
Police say the long closure was "regrettable" but they were just doing their job. Somehow that necessitated closing both sides of SH1 for most of the day after the incident near Puhoi. The death had occurred around 4am. The dead man was reported to have confronted officers with a machete when he was shot dead. The road was not re-opened until 3.55pm.
Thousands of people were hoping to travel north from Auckland that morning. Some would have waited in long lines thinking whatever the police were doing it could not take too long. Many more would have given up and turned away, their plans ruined for the day or the rest of the weekend.
Inspector Trevor Beggs, road policing manager for the Waitemata District, has explained that while a scene investigation for a serious crash normally takes just a couple of hours, a firearms incident is, "a much more complex and difficult scene. We only get one chance to gather evidence and to do the best job we can".
He said, "We had a range of people who came in to the scene, including outside agencies. There were the initial staff who responded, then detective teams, then the photography section, mapping, ESR forensic staff and others. The ESR guys are often in there on their hands and knees looking for vital evidence."
He visited the scene himself and saw staff "under pressure" to get the job done properly. He received half-hourly updates and worked with transport agencies to update them on the status of the road closure. "We wanted to do the best job for everyone concerned," he said. "The family of the deceased of course, the police staff involved and everyone else. We really needed to be in there gathering all the evidence we could."
We should spare some sympathy for those in charge of the investigation. If they do not conduct the exercise completely by the book they are liable to be taken to task at a trial or a coroner's inquiry, or in this case, the Independent Police Conduct Authority. The repercussions for them will outweigh the inconvenience to thousands of travellers waiting for them to finish their work.
Criminal investigation is important, especially when a police officer has fired a fatal shot, but the rights of other people are important too. When the police find themselves with a crime scene on a main highway with no alternative route nearby, they can surely do what they need to do while allowing a controlled lane of traffic through.
What would have happened if this incident had occurred on a weekday on the Auckland Harbour Bridge? Or, as a Newstalk ZB host suggested on Saturday, at Auckland Airport? Would the bridge or the airport be closed for 12 hours?
Only the police know whether their procedures could be more flexible. But in situations such as they and the public faced last Saturday, there has to be a better way.