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My first father-in-law was Cecil James Crawford. He was what you used to call a good, old-fashioned neighbourhood cop. In the fifties, his beat was where he lived — in the then new, state-house suburbs of Kew and Corstorphine in Dunedin. And he kept a lid on an area that had the potential to turn rough. You didn’t have to live there to know of “Old Man Crawford” — he was known all over Dunedin. A legend really.
He was big, gruff and his favoured treatment of young felons was, apparently, a clip around the ears, a kick up the bum and taken home to Mum and Dad.
But times have changed and no policeman, or policewoman, these days would dare mete out that sort of instant justice in keeping a potentially wild, state-house, area under control. In fact, the old fashioned local bobby has disappeared along with that flexible attitude to instant justice.
But, those aren’t the only changes to the way that police interact with society.
For most of European settlement, the police model for New Zealand has been based on the British model where the police are an integrated part of society, administering the laws that society deems necessary to keep us all safe.
In fact, when I was on radio, senior police told me often they preferred to be called “the Police Department” and not “the Police Force” as the use of the word “force” had unpleasant connotations they wanted to stay clear of.
In that regard we have differed from, say, Australia, where the police operate more in the way that the police in America do — that is, that they stand apart from society, are quite a separate entity and there’s an air of authority with just a hint of menace about the way they look, act and operate.
The lack of the apparent carrying of firearms by New Zealand police is one very obvious link with their British counterparts — something that bewilders both Australian and American cops.
The way our police have operated has served us well. For most of my life there has been this partnership of earned respect between police and public.
But things are changing.
Our police now appear to have adopted some of the hard-line tactics of their Australian and American counterparts.
Occasionally I will risk brain damage by watching an American cop show on Sky Television where there is a very clear policy of “shoot first and ask questions later”. By “shoot’, I don’t necessarily mean hauling out a six-gun and blazing away, I mean it in a general way where “suspects” are “taken down” using uncompromising amounts of energy (force) and their hands are roughly handcuffed behind their backs.
Then the questions begin.
A couple of years ago I spent some time in California at a conference where my allotted driver was a Texas policeman who had this secondary driving job during his vacation.
We discussed the different attitude towards policing in our countries and he was astounded that our boys (and girls) weren’t armed and didn’t routinely throw suspects to the ground and ‘cuff them. “Why wouldn’t you (both arm and ‘cuff)? It can be dangerous out there.”
As a driver, he was quietly spoken, pleasant and seemed like a nice man. But then, when the subject turned to President George W. Bush he showed another side of him. “I like the man.”
Anyway, there seems to have been a shift in the way our police operate. There is more a hint of the American authority figure about the way that they operate.
Most of our visible police are younger than they used to be, appear to be more forbidding and they are forcing “suspects” to the ground and ‘cuffing them more often than they used to.
Recently, we had the case of a Chinese visitor to New Zealand being given this sort of treatment in Hamilton.
The visitor was a middle-aged woman who had had her car towed from a supermarket car park and was remonstrating with the tow truck driver — a situation a growing number of ordinary, law-abiding New Zealanders can sympathise with.
It appears the towie wouldn’t back down and neither would the woman, so the police were called and from there on things got totally out of hand.
The result was that the middle-aged woman found herself on the ground, her head forced to the pavement while her hands were cuffed behind her back.
Apart from sore wrists, the woman also had several stitches in a wound to her head caused by heavy contact with the pavement.
These days, police see little need to explain their actions, but in this case they did. At a press conference, police explained that the reason the middle-aged Chinese visitor was treated so roughly was that, at some stage, she tried to bite an officer.
At the time, I wondered how a 55 year old Cecil James Crawford would have dealt with the situation.
The relationship between police and the public is not as close as it used to be. I am not sure that today we regard the police as our “friends” in the way we did ten, twenty or thirty years ago. There is a growing gulf.
Part of that is because of the take-no-prisoners attitude of our Highway Patrol and their policy of dishing out traffic infringement notices — a policy that brings tens of thousands of New Zealanders face-to-face with the other side of the law for the first time in their lives. “But, but, but — I’m not a criminal,” the victims say, totally bewildered by it all.
In a democracy, the public decides, through the political system, what is legal and illegal and the police are our agents, public servants, in applying those laws.
An example of how the police today regard themselves as their own entity, separate from lawmakers and the public, is in the way the decision is made whether motorists are to be given ten percent, or four percent allowance over the speed limit, before being issued a ticket. I would have thought such policy decisions, affecting so many people, would have been made by, at least, the Minister of police — not by a police person in an office in Wellington.
But the most astounding example of the Americanisation of our Police Force was the raid on the horribly ostentatious House that Chrisco Built to take Mister Dotcom into custody.
It’s difficult to find any sympathy for a man who lives the flamboyant, hedonistic lifestyle of Mister Dotcom, but the actions of “our” police in making the arrest on behalf of the Americans, seems to indicate that the Sky Channel “C.I.” and the show “Cops” is now part of their training regime.
Please do not interpret this as being anti-police — I’m not, because I understand their importance as well as their position in society. And there is no way I’d like to face a drug-fuelled lunatic armed with a loaded shotgun, attend fatal car crashes, or write a $100 speeding ticket for a 65 year old widow because she was driving her Toyota Yaris at 106km/h. I am quite happy for some of my taxes to pay someone else to look after that side of life for me.
But, just as we get the politicians we deserve, maybe we also get the Police Force we deserve.