Over the last 72 hours I have watched coverage of the death of a black American named Floyd George, who was arrested in Minneapolis and pinned to the ground by an officer who placed a knee on his neck. Mr George lost consciousness and later died in hospital. Widespread outrage at the latest example of police violence in the United States, which has led to business premises being torched in Minneapolis and reports of disturbances in Los Angeles, have reminded me why I am extremely grateful that I live in New Zealand.
Whilst the vast majority of American police officers are probably honourable men and women who just want to protect their communities as best as they can, the American police force at all levels has several major ingrained problems:
- It is trigger happy
- The militarization of the force
There is no doubt that the U.S. police force have a lower threshold for the use of firearms than in New Zealand. Nor is there any doubt that the tendency to shoot first and ask question’s later has had some bad outcomes. An Australian lady was shot dead when Police arrived to respond to a suspected rape that she had just reported. In another case, Eric Garner was shot dead by an officer later found guilty of murder.
In recent years, the U.S. police force has been given access to armoured personnel carriers, sniper rifles and other equipment generally reserved for military use only. The militarized nature of the equipment and its deployment in places with large black populations following controversial police actions, has caused significant tensions in recent years.
Is this to say though, that the New Zealand Police are perfect? Of course not. They have had their moments when they have done things that have had significant fallout.
I am reminded of two big failures in 2007 that elicited substantial negative public reaction around the country and reminded the Police that they needed to lift their game. One was the case of police officers who allegedly raped a lady named Louise Nicholas. Ms Nicholas was a young adult when three Police officers allegedly went to her house for non-consensual sexual intercourse. Whilst they were acquitted, it brought significant light onto several corrupt officers who were fired, and one jailed for obstruction of justice.
The other big failure of the Police was in 2007 when in testing the counter terrorism suppression laws, raids were conducted around New Zealand. They were response to an alleged paramilitary camp that was supposedly training individuals for an Irish Republican Army type guerilla war to form an independent Tuhoe nation based on ancestral Maori land in the Urewera mountains. These acts were in numerous cases found to have breached peoples civil rights and there was a significant uproar about it. In Christchurch I knew of activists who were at home studying for university exams when Police turned up demanding to search their flat, looking for a man who had been invited to attend the paramilitary camp. They asked to see the warrant and when none was produced, were told to leave. In the North Island, raids occurred around Ruatoki, near the Urewera’s, with 17 arrests. Most went free after it was found the charges were inadmissible.
At the other end of the scale, respect across the country mushroomed in light of the 2019 terrorist attack on mosques in Christchurch, where 51 people were murdered. On that day Police responded to the attacks within six minutes and were able to apprehend the suspect, who pleaded guilty to all charges earlier this year. Two police officers rammed his car as he drove to a third mosque with the intention of attacking it. Further adding to the respect was the enormous compassion and sensitivity that they displayed towards the victims of the attack.
People on social media sometimes accuse the Police of having a vendetta against them. I have to ask what their background was. Did at some point in the past they have an interaction with the Police caused by them doing something they should not have? Maybe the Police response was over the top – I certainly know of cases where this has happened, but did the complainants ever take their complaints to the Independent Police Complaints Authority, and if so, what did the I.P.C.A. say?
On occasion we hear of Police officers being rude when first. The very vast majority of them are polite and considerate, but one needs to remember that they might have just come from having to deal with someone who resisted arrest or had to break up a domestic assault case.
So, as we watch the growing violence following the death of Floyd George, we here in New Zealand can be very grateful for the restraint and compassion that our force displays.