Alison worked a 12-hour day yesterday, had nothing to eat because she and her police colleagues were so busy, then walked out the door to abuse from the public. It was a variation on the theme that police are too busy collecting traffic fines to answer 111 complaints or follow-up burglaries. Now, they're too busy staring at porn on their computers. For the police, it's not a good look.

Alison understands where the public are coming from - the hypocrisy of police firing around email images of explicit intercourse and bestiality, then charging people for sex offences.

"If police want to command the respect of the public it has to be earned through their own behaviour. A lot has to change."

Another disillusioned officer, a senior sergeant: "What's very disappointing is that the commissioner front-footed this issue in the way he did when he's been so reticent in doing that on the resourcing [of police] issue.

"When police officers step out of line he's quick to go on the front foot."

There's no doubt that police Commissioner Rob Robinson's announcement that 327 staff had been caught with pornography has further dented public confidence in a force we like to think of as one of the cleanest in the world. As Robinson acknowledges, since Louise Nicholas' historic allegations against police hit the headlines 14 months ago, that image has suffered body blow after body blow.

Nicholas' claims drew other women forward and brought tales of heavy-drinking, womanising cops treating small towns as their fiefdoms. "We were like young bulls in a paddock," was how former Police Association secretary Rob Moodie described policing in the 1980s.

What the public wonders now, however, is whether anything has really changed?

Alison: "The worst offenders are the older ones, the sergeants and senior sergeants. They have calendars and screen savers and the like of half-clad women in their offices.

"There seems to be this kind of mentality that because they deal with scum that they [police] are better than everyone else and it is okay to take the piss out of everything."

When the constable, now in her late 20s, began in the job she was horrifed by some attitudes. A senior sergeant would make comments degrading to women. Now she says she is used to it.

"There are instances where guys crowd around and watch drunk and drugged women, possibly even mentally disturbed, strip off their clothes, or head to the morgue to see the body of a good looking woman. It is all seen as a bit of a joke."

But others wonder why such a fuss is being raised at this time. Many are upset at the way their commanders have dealt with the porn issue. They believe the hierarchy, dogged all year by the Nicholas allegations and subsequent fiascos, has overreacted so as to avoid being accused of underplaying it.

Many of the emails are said to be "joke" items - Marge Simpson giving Homer a blowjob and one called "10 reasons not to drink", depicting naked and inebriated figures. Other images include stills from One night in Paris, a Paris Hilton video.

One officer commented that because police work led to a "state of desensitisation" many were not repulsed by porn.

"There's a degree of 'so what' associated with it."

Several police were sent a disciplinary letter for having the Simpson cartoon, a supervisor working in the police's criminal intelligence branch, told the Weekend Herald.

A Waikato policeman claims the allegations are over the top. "I got a letter (telling him he was one of those accused) and I can tell you right now that I don't get any more than Rachel Hunter's boobies (by email).

"I'm not a devo (deviant) trading in hardcore porn, but that's the label that's been applied. Go down to your local mechanic's shop on any given day and you'll see far worse."

A former Waikato officer, who hadn't seen the images, said the police response was "political correctness out of control".

"Fair enough if there's [bestiality] and all that sort of carry-on. But a hardcase joke? The Louise Nicholas inquiry revealed really disturbing behaviour of the sort that is extremely rare. It's buying the bag of apples and its the one in the bottom that's crook."THE pornography inquiry began on November 8 when a copy was made of the police computer system. This followed an initial analysis during which computer consultants found pornographic images.

The first examination of the system found more than 1200 police had questionable material. The criteria was tightened and the number involved narrowed to 330. Robinson says in the case of 30 staff, the images are serious enough to be referred to the chief film censor to consider criminal charges under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act.

"The only upside to this situation is that it gives us the opportunity to thoroughly examine our whole conduct and culture and then to put things right where that is necessary," said an ashen-faced Robinson.

The embarrassment has prompted the Government to widen its inquiry into police conduct, which stemmed from Nicholas' complaints, to examine changes to police culture. It follows:

* The botched handling of model Iraena Asher's 111 call from Piha before she disappeared in October, including evidence that call-centre staff swore and used disrespectful language while talking to her.

* A Hamilton rape complainant who phoned 111 being told to walk to the police station, as she lived nearby, to make her statement.

* Evidence of humiliation of young suspects which emerged during the trial in February of Senior Sergeant Anthony Solomona of the Counties Manukau district. The crowning indignity was a posed photograph of a machete-wielding man, dressed in a police uniform, next to a sign reading "RIP to Section 4" - the Wiri-based emergency response unit headed by Solomona.

Sergeant John Nelson told the court he had seen similar stunts in many police stations. "It is a matter of police culture, you get accustomed to it as your time in the police increases."

Wellington academic Dr Jan Jordan says the incidents have a common thread. "All these things are indicative that there is still an underlying culture which does have negative attitudes towards women and has suspicious attitudes towards women who are claiming to be sexually assaulted.

"The whole environment is one that does make it difficult for women particularly reporting sexual assaults and rape offences," says Jordan, senior lecturer in criminology at Victoria University.

"There are too many indicators that there are underlying attitudes here that are pervasive throughout the organisation.

"It's still a struggle for women even working within the police to feel accepted always ... We've got a traditionally male-orientated organisation that's having to come into the 21st century."

It is, of course, all too easy to get holier-than-thou over expectations of the police - especially when you throw pornography into the mix.

As Robinson points out, the 5000 sexually explicit images found when IT experts cloned the email system had to come from somewhere.

About 800 came from private businesses, 80 from other public sector agencies, 20 from educational institutions and 18 from media outlets.

"These are not police officers going on the internet and downloading images, they have come in as emails with embedded images," he told National Radio. "This is a community issue. I'm sure there will be people who will be doing a stocktake of their own workplaces and email folders."

In Auckland criminologist Scott Optican's eyes, whether or not police officers look at porn is less of an issue than whether it effects their judgment.

Optican, a former prosecutor turned senior lecturer in criminal procedure at Auckland University's law school, says the media tends to look at isolated incidents and declare patterns in order to create crises.

"The 111 call thing is more a question of resources than culture. In the Solomona case there was personal involvement and, in the end, the system worked. The fact that police are looking at this stuff - it doesn't shock me so much. Cops are upholders of the law, not values. I don't really care if my police officer looks at porn, except if it affects his judgment."

Optican says it's important to distinguish between the personal and the public. "It's only when public virtue is undermined by private vice that you start to worry.

"I think the New Zealand police can put their hands up and say we have one of the most honest and incorrupt forces in the world.

"But that doesn't mean we are dealing with good people.

"They don't need to be perfect people. They need to be perfect cops."

But Jordan fears the scandal will dent women's confidence about approaching the police with sexual assault complaints which women find difficult enough to make anyway. She cites a female sexual assault victim who overheard male detectives cracking anti-woman jokes in one room while she was being interviewed in another. The detective interviewing her ignored what was going on. "She was left sitting there thinking if he wasn't talking to me, would he be joking with them."

The incident occurred several years ago.

Jordan has since called for specialist training for police investigating sexual assault complaints, based on her research which suggested some police distinguished "real rape" from non-consensual sex.

"I also feel some genuine sympathy with the officers within the police who are also going to be damaged in terms of how they're perceived now as a result of this. There are detectives in there who are really giving their all to try and support victims of sexual assault. This really damages the work they're trying to do."

In a 2000 report on women working in the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB), Victoria University associate professor Prue Hyman found that the historically male workforce and day-to-day experience contributed to a macho culture within the police.

She said one way for women to fit into the largely male culture was by becoming "one of the guys", by joining in crude and perhaps anti-women jokes.

Former detective sergeant Marie Fitchett said there was a pressure on new officers to be macho and join the group.

A detective constable said there was a pack mentality. "They all egg each other on. Split them up and they're not like that at all."

A sergeant said she felt that she had to assimilate. "You are sitting in a car at an observation point and the boys are talking dirty: I mean you sit and listen to it and you end up laughing to their sick jokes even though perhaps you don't want to - but if you make a song and dance you are the only one."

A detective constable said the rules of the old boys club were slowly breaking down. "The community is changing and so they have to change ... I think it is starting from the ground floor up."

Police caught in the porn swoop can hardly feign ignorance. They were made well aware of what constitutes acceptable use of the internet and email after the Flower of Scotland incident nearly three years ago. Then, three officers were disciplined after emailing an image of a man's genitals to an outside business. The image, looking up the man's kilt from a low angle, ended up being sent to 20 primary schools.

In response, strict guidelines were issued on internet use and emailing, with a zero-tolerance approach for pornographic images. Staff were reminded that software could identify anyone attempting to access objectionable websites and that IT staff monitored email traffic and could retrieve all information stored on computers, including deleted files.

Superintendent Alistair (Olly) Beckett, the Police College training commander, says the attitudes, behaviour and conduct expected of trainee police are instilled into them even before their day of arrival at police college.

"They're basically told that once they join the police, the public service, they take on new obligations, and if they don't want to live up to them, they're not welcome.

"They get quite an extensive grounding in behaviour, attitudes and standards.

"It requires them to operate in a way that will preserve the relationship between the police and the community and tells them about the very high standards they're expected to adhere to."

But women officers in particular find that what's taught at police college can be forgotten over time at the front line.

"Porn is always flying around and is seen as a bit of a joke just like that last incident where that cop was pictured on the front page with that RIP sign and a knife," says Alison.

She says the older ones are the worst. She believes younger colleagues are embarrassed by the lewd comments of their seniors.

The porn bust has hit the Counties Manukau police district particularly hard, following the Solomona trial assault charges. Staff say the trial lowered morale and there were concerns about the inclusion in evidence of the photograph depicting a balaclava-clad officer holding a machete, which they say had no direct bearing on the charges.

A South Auckland policeman said the mea culpa attitude of senior management - from the Office of the Commissioner to district bosses - had created an atmosphere of fear and distrust within the ranks.

The officer said he could understand why Commissioner Robinson made the porn inquiry public, but thought it could equally "have been kept in house with a timely reminder sent around first to clean it up".

"There will no doubt be some bloody good cops who have been roped into [the inquiry]. There is no excuse. Your email may show you only opened that document once. You may not delete emails. But the fact you still have that one offensive pornographic image, they will get you on it."

Restricted or objectionable?

The Internal Affairs censorship compliance unit provides guidelines for what is restricted material and what is objectionable.

Restricted: Typically R18 or adult material similar to that which can be found at video or magazine outlets.
Objectionable: This is illegal and potentially criminal material. It can include child sex, torture, bestiality, bodily functions and material involving dead people.