Wednesday, April 06, 2011

No confidence without transparency

(What our police do to suspects. Image stolen from Christchurch Star)

Back in Februrary, police officers in Christchurch allegedly beat Arie Smith, after arresting him for looting in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake. When I heard of the attack a week after the fact, I immediately sent an OIA to the police asking some basic questions:

  • How did the injuries to Mr Smith occur? Did they occur before, during, or after arrest?
  • If they occured before or after arrest, are the police investigating who inflicted them with an eye to bringing charges?
  • If they occured during arrest, are the arresting officers being investigated to ensure that the force used was proportionate, necessary, and lawful?

(These questions are coloured by the fact that it was initially unclear that police were responsible for Mr Smith's injuries).

Today I received my response. After taking 17 working days, despite my request for urgency, the police refused to provide any information, citing sections 9(2)(a) (privacy) and 6(c) (maintenance of the law) as grounds for refusal. On the first ground, it is unclear whether the police are protecting Smith's privacy, or that of his attackers, and there is no indication that they weighed privacy against the (very high) public interest in disclosure as required by the law. On the second ground, it is hard to see how broad questions of "are you actually doing anything about this" can undermine the right to a fair trial.

Naturally, I'll be complaining to the Ombudsman. But what's concerning is that when faced with a case which calls their trust into question, the police's instinctive response is secrecy and covering for their own. And then they wonder why we don't trust them...

When a police officer beats a suspect, it is not just a crime, but a betrayal of the public trust. We deserve to know that such crimes are being investigated, and that the police can police their own. If the police refuse to provide basic information to show that we can have confidence in them, then they deserve every bit of suspicion and distrust they get.