IPCA – An extension of the police public relations department



Most of us never give much thought to the Independent Police Conduct Authority. We only hear about it when yet another young life is taken in a police chase and we are assured an independent investigation will take place even as we listen to the public statements from senior police that their officers had “abandoned” the chase earlier, had acted properly at all stages and the dead and injured kids have only themselves to blame.

But the IPCA came into public focus last weekend in a different context when it told a Sunday Star Times journalist it would not be investigating the case where three police officers breached police regulations, and more importantly the democratic rights of citizens, when they colluded to wear the same police identification numbers when undertaking a violent eviction of Occupy protestors from Auckland’s Aotea Square in January 2012.

The IPCA said that because of their limited resources they only investigate when death or serious injury has occurred so left this matter to the police to investigate.

We don’t know the outcome although we are told some disciplinary action was taken against two of the officers but neither lost their job. No disciplinary action was taken against the third.

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On the face of it this is extremely serious from a public safety and accountability standpoint. The only obvious reason for them to wear identical numbers would be to create confusion and thereby evade accountability for bashing protestors – an unfortunate theme in police handling of protests.

Most importantly we should have had the IPCA in there working hard for us as the public watchdog – but they were missing in action. It’s not good enough.

Most IPCA investigators are former police officers themselves and their ability to impartially investigate has always been in question. It’s also not understood by the general public that the IPCA still hands over most complaints directly to the police to investigate. The identity badges issue is a case in point and is the routine practice for any complaints I’ve been involved with over the years.

In fact the only investigation into a complaint I’ve made which was done by the IPCA itself arose from a protest at the Waihopai spybase near Blenheim earlier this year.

The Christchurch-based ABC (Anti-Bases Campaign) organise an annual protest outside the base each January and this year a delegation climbed the gate and took a letter down the drive to deliver to the base commander. When a group of police refused to let them proceed they requested the police take the letter to deliver themselves. Sergeant John Western then took the letter in one beefy hand, screwed it into a ball and tossed it over his shoulder onto the ground.

Here’s the complaint I wrote to the IPCA on 21 January on behalf of the protest –
”At approximately 1.30pm a group of people from the protest walked down the station driveway with a letter addressed to the station commander. They were stopped by a group of four police who were standing across the driveway. The police said the protest group were not permitted to proceed further whereupon the police were asked to themselves deliver the letter. The outcome was that a police sergeant (I’m told his name is Sergeant John Westen (sp?)) took the letter, screwed it up into a ball and threw it on the ground. It was a childish, provocative action well outside any conceivable police role to ensure protest rights are upheld.”

The next I heard was the IPCA’s response to the complaint on 22 February –
“The matter of an officer acting in a provocative and childish manner by screwing up a letter and throwing it to the ground is refuted by Police. Police describe the person holding the letter as being advised to desist from waving it in the officer’s face repeatedly. The letter was brushed aside and where it fell to the ground due to the protestor letting it go and allowing it to fall and where it remained. The officer did not take the letter and did not screw it up and therefore did not throw it to the ground. This incident occurred on restricted land and where the protestors were trespassing.

An independent review of all the information satisfies the Authority that there is no evidence to support your complaint on this particular issue. The Authority has formed the opinion that Police actions in this instance were lawful and justified.

As the Authority has found no evidence of misconduct or neglect of duty by the Police in this matter, further action by this Authority is unnecessary. Therefore it is decided not to take any further action towards your complaint pursuant to section 18(2) of the Independent Police Conduct Authority Act 1988.”

I know the IPCA will be understaffed and overburdened. That’s what happens to public watchdogs when the police or politicians want to avoid close scrutiny. The Ombudsman’s office – much hated by government politicians – is in the same situation as they reported just last week.
But by any measure the “investigation” was pathetic – it didn’t happen. Instead the IPCA asked the police for their version of the event and then wrote back to us giving the police version as the facts. The outcome was no different to what it would have been had the police investigated.

I’ve written back requesting the investigation be reopened saying –

“Just how you did this independent review is unclear but the evidence is abundant that Sergeant John Western took the letter from Green Party MP Steffan Browning, screwed it into a ball with one hand and tossed it back over his shoulder. Steffan is more than happy to provide a statement to this effect….”

I also included a photo of the police line-up after the incident (Sergeant Western is second from left) with the screwed up letter in the right foreground.

At one level this issue is trivial and pathetic but the principle is important and the failure of the IPCA to do anything other than automatically take the police word for what happened is a pitiful dereliction of their statutory duty.

This example also gives a clear insight into how the IPCA works, not as a public watchdog to hold the police to account, but as an extension of the public relations division of the police.

Incidentally, police standard operating procedures say “The EMI device (taser) is not to be carried by members rostered for duty at demonstrations” but Sergeant Western and another of the four were packing these weapons on their hips. The IPCA say they have given this issue over to the police to investigate… We’re not holding our breath…

The worst thing we can do is to continue to pretend the IPCA is somehow independent, somehow useful, somehow holds police to account and somehow reports faithfully and honestly to the public. It does none of these things. We may as well be rid of this misleading and useless appendage.


  1. This situation hurts the police as well as the public. I respect the fact that a police officer’s job is not an easy one, full of danger and stress. The police need the public to support them, but such actions as these have an accumulative corrosive effect.

    • Police are Law enforcement Officers. They enforce Law and Order. They have the Right to stop us anywhere and invade our Civilian Privacy. Law abiding citizens should have no Fear of been asked for ID or any other question that is Ethical. But when Police are flexing their muscles or EGO then YES I do like to know as a Civilian there is the Independent Police Conduct Authority available to bring the Police to task, and they do.

  2. ““Actions such as these” have simply become standard operating procedure.”

    – which is why more and more people wouldn’t cross the road to piss on a policeman if he was on fire!

    – and I’m talking white middle class “ordinary” citizens, here…..

  3. It comes to know surprise when the officers in blue present themselves according
    to what they consider themselves to be law abiding officers. I am most positively sure they get paid more than enough for misusing their police uniforms and badges and the list goes on.

    Sure most officers go through counciling each day because of the call of duty; that they have to uphold in the most difficult of situations and what can be the most life threatening odeals for them. But it does not make them invincible! They do not need to throw their weight around and intimidate people regardless of their role, what they need to show is courtesy and respect understanding without prejudice attitudes or racial discrepancy to those of the minority.

    Section 22 of the Policing Act 2008 prescribes an oath in the following form:-

    “English form

    “I, [name], swear that I will faithfully and diligently serve Her (or His) Majesty [specify the name of the reigning Sovereign], Queen (or King) of New Zealand, her (or his) heirs and successors, without favour or affection, malice or ill-will. While a constable I will, to the best of my power, keep the peace and prevent offences against the peace, and will, to the best of my skill and knowledge, perform all the duties of the office of constable according to law. So help me God.

    For all you rookies keep the oath above in mind and heart, and for the old school officers still in the force or retired. Keep these new police boys and girls in line, bring them back to why they wanted to become police officers in the first place.

  4. I always knew that eventually tasers would be carried at demonstrations by the cops, this will be a huge turn off for lots of people, including me. The idea that you will only be tasered if you are violent or something similar is complete poppycock. The cops have always been fist and trigger happy.

    I have also wondered just how many mental health people have had tasers used on them. This was one of the major concerns by mental health advocates prior to their introduction. How many times is the mental health emergency team called out these days when someone is out of control.

    We must have a proper independent police complaints team.

    • In the 2006-2007 twelve month trial, “Tasers were deployed on a total of 141 people in 124 events, and discharged 19 times. Of the 141 subjects, 30 (21%) involved people in mental health emergencies. Tasers were more than twice as likely to be discharged at mental health emergencies (8 of 30; 27%) than at criminal arrests (11 of 111; 10%) (X(2)=5.69; df=1; p=0.017). There were two incidents that involved a Taser being used as part of police response to in-patient mental health services and two incidents involving mental health community residential accommodation.”

      Aug 2011, NZHerald, “Numbers released by Police Minister Judith Collins this week showed that 37 of the 88 people tasered by police in the 11 months to August were “judged to be experiencing a mental health issue”.” And what’s more, the actual defense from the Police was that tasering the mentally ill (or those they perceive as mentally ill) was just symptomatic of their general incompetence dealing with mentally ill people.

      Jan 2013, Stuff.co.nz, undoubtedly really proud of their hilarious headline. Excerpt: “Numbers released under the Official Information Act show nearly a third of those hit were considered by police to have mental health issues.”

      I know I read something about the number of times tasers were discharged against people at suicide call-outs, but I can’t find the link right now.

      Additionally, it’s worth noting that (as the Mental Health Foundation has pointed out), common medications for certain types of mental illness seriously weaken the heart, which is considered a pretty big health risk where tasers are concerned. There’s not a lot of data on this because a) animal studies are not great at predicting effects of electrocution on humans and b) it’s really hard to convince an Ethics Board to let you electrocute humans with weak hearts. What the data does show is that a state of hyper-arousal/”excited delirium” is associated with a higher risk of death after taser use. (Disclaimer: correlation not causation, etc etc.)

      I may be a little over-invested in this issue.

      • Id be very interested in knowing who runs the IPCA. I bet its not even NZ run. It may be NZ based, but i bet the ones responsible for its presence here live off shore. Thats my guess because it seems to me, when the NZ Police are letting the Team down, the hands-on, or see-with-your-own-eyes Civilian has to make all the justifying.

  5. The IPCA are doing a disservice to the public as there is a culture among police of; don’t dob your mate in, don’t admit your wrong, the jury verdict was guilty due to perjury. This is what is being used to absolve cops who cross the line. Until there is no bias the odds are stacked against the complainant.

    Next year will be 25 years since the IPCA was set up. Currently it is an over stretched and under resourced service in every way and this alone requires a serious review because often the same scenario and/or the same officers are complained about.

    Thought has to be given to those who have no other avenue available to set right an injustice. Through experience I am aware that politicians have been misled by the police and I consider this to be serious as politicians then become part of the problem because of the dirty under belly within the police.

    For me a police uniform stands for to serve and to protect.

    Who is being served and protected by how the IPCA is run and who is really running the IPCA?

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