Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Hawkins and the Police

12/04/2005

I don't know anyone who personally dislikes George Hawkins. He's amiable, often humorous, and possesses a shrewd streak that has usually kept him out of political trouble. He deserves to be remembered for his years as Mayor of Papakura. He had a good team around him, many of them chosen by him, and after 1989 they used my new local government legislation in a thoughtful, sometimes creative way. Under him, they delivered better services to the ratepayers at a lower cost than any other council in greater Auckland.

Not content with doing an excellent job as mayor, Hawkins went into Parliament and has been there nearly fifteen years. It's a forum less suited to his style. He's not nimble on his feet, and the illness he suffered years back means that he'll never shine in the House. In opposition he chose to concentrate his energies on the Police. He scored some hits. But he failed to work out that there are deep, systemic problems bedevilling that institution, and it's much too late in his career for him to start reforming the force. He should resign and let someone else do it.

The current weekly debacle where the opposition lambastes the Police by mocking Hawkins shouldn't be allowed to continue. The Police are far too important to society to be turned into a laughing stock for political gain. The indiscriminate nature of the political and journalistic attacks on virtually every aspect of Police work is hugely destructive of this essential prop to our society. At the very least we need a more vital and resourceful thinker in charge at the political level. Sadly, the Police force, almost alone of state agencies, missed out on the reforming drive in the 1980s and 1990s. This means that neither its structure, nor its priorities, nor its recruitment processes are up to today's challenges. As a result, the courteous, likeable Commissioner, Rob Robinson, is constantly reacting to problems and seldom able to lead.

Today's difficulties are only partly George Hawkins' fault. By law and convention Police ministers are less involved in operational matters than almost any other political heads. The current crisis stems from a generation of failures by both parties to deal adequately with structural inadequacies. This is because politicians, by and large, are scared of the Police, and successive prime ministers have allocated ministers from the weaker end of their cabinets who have left the force to itself. All ministers know that the Police leak like a sieve, as Colin Moyle learned in the 1970s. The Police Association has always engaged in old-style politicking, just like the pre-reform Public Service Association. Over the years they perfected the art of turning the tables on politicians they perceived to be a threat. Now they (and we) are paying the price. Never in my long life has public confidence in the Police been lower than it is today. This state of affairs must not continue.

So a strong, insightful new minister is needed. But that alone won't fix things. Nor can endless limited-scope inquiries. We need a high-powered group with the widest brief and substantial resources to investigate every aspect of New Zealand's policing. It should start with management and the antiquated separation between sworn and un-sworn members of the Police. Power currently lies with those in uniforms; merit doesn't enter the Police equation. Inefficiency and demoralisation stem from this outmoded reality. Priorities need changing too. They have a direct influence on the incidence of crime. Is 50% of an average Police day spent inside a station as in the UK? I suspect so. Having a radar camera every quarter mile, while hundreds of rape complaints aren't investigated, is crazy stuff. And what application can schemes like New York's "broken windows" policy that halved their crime rate, have here? Citizens need to become more involved in their own protection too. Media relations also cry out for scrutiny. Lazy journalists pick up easy stories from loose-lipped cops, or breathlessly report claims by ratbags, many with an obvious grudge. This harms the force's reputation well before the complainants are exposed as frauds.

Once current inadequacies and areas of slackness have been identified we'll know how much extra money the Police need. Currently the force is in a crisis that is beyond the abilities of George Hawkins, or Rob Robinson to fix. Action is required now. And reform should become a serious election issue.