Monday, March 30, 2020

The police and public trust

When the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency last week, she handed the police powers to enforce it. And almost immediately, we started hearing about heavy-handed, arbitrary "enforcement" by police who (at best) cared more about order than law, or (more likely) had no idea what the rules were and were making it up to suit themselves as they went along. As a result, there's a public call on RNZ for police to get their shit together, obey the law, and publish the rules they will be enforcing so everyone knows what they can do.

Why does this matter? Because the lockdown depends fundamentally on trust. And the police making up the rules as they go along, harassing people who are obeying the lockdown, and harassing the essential workers we need to keep doing their jobs so we don't all starve to death is an abuse and erosion of that trust. And if they erode it too much, the entire thing falls apart.

But its not just the lockdown. Policing depends on trust as well - trust that the police will investigate properly and enforce the law fairly, trust that they will only use their powers lawfully and reasonably and appropriately, trust they won't abuse their position to frame people, commit crimes, or cover up for their mates. With that trust, people will report crimes, give evidence, cooperate when arrested. Without it, people won't, and a police officer is just a dick with a blue shirt, their ability to enforce the law limited to the reach of their stick or gun. And since law is kindof useful to a civilised society, that's bad for all of us.

New Zealanders have responded to the lockdown in a generally pro-social manner. The police need to as well. But beyond that, they need to recognise that the trust we place in them isn't a blank cheque, but a responsibility, and that they need to earn it, every single day. Because if they don't, they're not doing their jobs properly, and need to be sacked.