By TONY WALL
Police in Whangarei are defying a judge's criticism of their methods of interviewing crime suspects.
The city's police, under investigation after accusations of excessive force, are holding dummy-run sessions with suspects before they conduct on-camera interviews.
A Herald investigation has found that officers are still using the system they call "rapport building" despite at least two confessions being thrown out of court because threats or inducements were found to have been made.
The Herald found that the number of complaints about police methods, including alleged assaults, is growing by the week.
But senior Whangarei officers do not accept that staff may be overstepping the mark.
One senior detective, whose own interviewing methods have been questioned, said the night-time scene in the city was "like a zoo".
At a public meeting this week, the area controller for Whangarei, Inspector Paul Dimery, angrily blamed lax parents, lawyers looking to make money and the media for the criticism of his officers.
At police national headquarters, Commissioner Rob Robinson has ordered an internal inquiry into the alleged assaults, and Detective Superintendent Larry Reid of Wellington has been in Whangarei talking to complainants.
His interim report found "matters that warrant further inquiry", and his investigation is continuing.
The inquiry was started after a district court judge last month found that two teenagers accused of assaulting police acted in self-defence.
Mr Dimery told the Herald yesterday that he rejected the finding.
Judge John Hole ruled that Amanda Drake, aged 19, and her boyfriend, Rohin Smith, 17, used reasonable force when they reacted to what he considered an unwarranted assault by Sergeant Clifford Metcalfe.
Mr Dimery said yesterday: "I totally object ... I was in the court, I heard the evidence and, yes, I do reject the finding of Judge Hole."
At the public meeting on Thursday, Mr Dimery angrily accused a group of lawyers who have formed the Whangarei Criminal Bar Association to monitor police behaviour of levelling allegations against his staff without evidence.
He said he was dismayed that the group, which is offering free consultations to people who say police have assaulted them, seemed to think the town had a group of brutal officers.
He said a list of officers' names was circulating.
He later told the Herald he believed the lawyers were trying to drum up publicity to get more business and exploit the legal aid programme.
Mr Dimery also blamed the Herald for an attack on two officers in Dargaville last weekend. He said the attack was a direct result of the paper's "biased" report last month on Judge Hole's decision.
"It gives everybody out there who reads it carte blanche to say, 'If you want to take the police on, jump up and down, scream, then you can do whatever you like to the police'."
Mr Dimery accused parents of letting children, some as young as 10, run riot. "There is a very small element in Whangarei that are causing major havoc, fuelled by alcohol and lack of parental supervision - those are the two huge problems up here ... There is a certain element that take great pleasure in taking the police on."
The head of the criminal investigation branch, Detective Senior Sergeant Marty Ruth, said: "I've used excessive force, I'm human ... but a lot of guys are running around with their brains full of meth (methamphetamine) wanting to fight. This is not the cafe set in Ponsonby we're talking about ... It's a bloody zoo."
Roger Bowden, a lawyer representing four people making complaints of excessive force by police, said there was a "cowboy culture" within Whangarei police and officers seemed to have forgotten what their role was.
He said they seemed hell-bent on getting confessions out of people "come what may" instead of using proper investigating techniques.
"If you come on hard right from the beginning you get results," he said. "They have a good [crime] clearance rate but the manner in which they achieve it needs to be readdressed."
In a 1999 judgment obtained by the Herald this week, Justice Robert Fisher criticised Detective Senior Sergeant Ruth's tactic of conducting "dummy-run" interviews off camera.
He said video-recording, introduced in 1989, was a "disincentive against impropriety and a powerful protection to the police" and it was folly not to use it.
Detective Senior Sergeant Ruth defended his tactics, saying many criminals did not like to be video-recorded and they could not be compelled to accept it.
"We're not changing a god-damned thing ... There is no written rule that says you have to frog-march someone in and make a movie."
Detective Senior Sergeant Ruth said there was nothing unusual about interviews being ruled inadmissible at pre-trial hearings.
"It goes on all over the country every day. That's what the judge is there for."
During investigations this week, the Herald heard of at least 10 cases where Whangarei police have allegedly used threats or violence.
* Kohukohu volunteer firefighter Peter Krippner, 32, says he was pepper-sprayed at point-blank range in the face in police cells while handcuffed. Cannabis charges laid against him were later dropped.
* A Whangarei teenager has laid a complaint with the Police Complaints Authority alleging officers punched and threatened him after a traffic incident involving a policeman's fiancee.
* The mother of a 14-year-old boy has complained to the complaints authority that her son was beaten, strip-searched and hit in the face with a baton when being questioned about an alleged burglary. No charges were laid against him.
* A middle-aged man says he had three ribs broken and was pepper-sprayed while handcuffed after his arrest during a domestic incident.
* A man caught urinating in a Whangarei street says a group of officers forced him to the ground and "crunched" his head on the ground, before kicking him into a police car.
- Additional reporting by Daniel Jackson
By TONY WALL