The Independent Police Conduct Authority (generally known as the IPCA) has just released a comprehensive report on police deaths in custody. There were 27 deaths in the last ten years – ten of which were suicides. Seven deaths occurred when police were overly vigorous in the use of restraint. Another seven were “caused by the detainees medical condition” (which got dramatically worse in police custody), and three deaths were drug related (because police failed to ascertain the detainees were even on drugs). But of the 27 deaths, the IPCA claims that only four involved serious neglect of duty or breaches of policy by police. Really?
On top of deaths in custody, the police shot and killed seven people in the last ten years. One was an innocent bystander, another two were not even carrying firearms. It seems they were killed for acts of vandalism and behaving in a threatening manner. The police were exonerated in all seven cases. Really!
Then there are the people who die in the course of police car chases. During the five years starting in December 2003, 24 people died and 91 received serious injuries in police pursuits. Over this period, the IPCA made numerous recommendations to change police protocols which made no difference at all – the death rate shot up even higher. In 2010, 18 drivers fleeing police were killed. In 2011, 15 drivers died in the course of police pursuits.
These figures don’t seem to take into account innocent bystanders or other drivers killed by these drivers which makes it hard to get accurate figures of the total numbers killed. But it seems to average out at about seven or eight deaths a year, although the numbers have escalated dramatically in the last two years.
Total number of police related deaths
This would suggest that altogether police have been involved in the deaths of about 100 people in the last ten years – 70 of them on the road. The number of injuries appears to be ten times that figure. A few police were told off, but apparently not one was charged with a criminal offence. Yes – really! Imagine would happen if the shoe was on the other foot. What if the police investigated 100 deaths but failed to prosecute even one offender? There would be a commission of inquiry and heads would roll.
Many would argue that the police are just doing their job. Even the IPCA believes these deaths are justified. For instance, in its report into the deaths of Norman Fitt and Deidre Jordan following a police pursuit, the IPCA found: “The Police pursuit of a driver who killed two other motorists in Christchurch in August 2010 was justified and was conducted according to law and policy.” What that seems to mean is that when the police do their job, 100 dead bodies is just collateral damage.
The police certainly seem to think so. Police Association president Greg O’Connor even says police should be exempt from laws which apply to everyone else. Senior police management seem to agree. In an internal review of police pursuits in 2010, the police concluded: “There is insufficient evidence to support the banning of pursuits. (Banning pursuits) is not likely to improve or guarantee public safety.” This shows a truly remarkable lack of insight. If police did not pursue these alleged offenders, approximately 70 people killed on the road in the last ten years would still be alive. That would be a huge contribution to public safety.
Which crimes justify dying?
This begs the question: what criminal offences committed by these drivers actually justify police action which leads to someone’s death – especially the deaths of innocent bystanders? Afterall, many if not most, police pursuits begin over fairly trivial offences – or simply when police try to pull someone over to ascertain if an offence has even occurred. Psychologist, Peter Coleman, an expert in youth offending, says teenage drivers who refuse to stop for police are often just addicted to the adrenaline rush. But if the offender flees, the police then pursue them out some macho need to be in control of the situation – all justified in the name of law and order.
IPCA inquiries which legitimise the policy of pursuit over minor infractions of the law simply add to the number of New Zealanders who get killed. In other words, the principle of law and order has become more important than life itself and agencies of the state actively sanction this slaughter. What the IPCA should be doing is questioning the entire policy of pursuit and holding the police accountable. Now let’s get back to their report on deaths in police custody.
Failure of police to assess risk
The report is highly critical of the way police assess the detainees’ risk of suicide or risk of death – from medical complications exacerbated by alcohol and drugs or from overly vigorous restraint by police. It says 55% of those who died were assessed by police as being at ‘no risk’. Another 30% were ‘not formally assessed’ at all. In other words, when it comes to assessing medical and suicide risk of vulnerable detainees, the police haven’t got a clue. But that’s not surprising; they’re not health professionals. But nurses are – and the IPCA recommends that the Police work with the Ministry of Health “towards extending the watchhouse nurse programme so that custody staff nationwide have better access to medical advice for detainees.” What the IPCA is suggesting is that we need to put nurses into every police station in the country.
Unfortunately, there are 19 other recommendations in the report and the IPCA has not prioritised any one recommendation over another. And the recommendation for more nurses is contradicted by another recommendation which says that “detainees who are unconscious or semi-conscious, unable to answer the risk assessment questions, and/or physically unable to look after themselves, must be taken to hospital.” The problem is the police don’t seem to know which detainees need to go to hospital.
The watchdog is a puppy
Let’s not forget that prisoners managed by the Corrections Department also have limited access to health care. Despite years of inquiries and recommendations by the coroner into (Corrections) prison deaths, the suicide rate is still going up. In 2011, the suicide rate in Corrections prisons was eleven times higher than the rate in the community. Prisoners keep dying no matter what coronial inquiries or the IPCA recommend. Perhaps that’s because they have the power to recommend – but not the power to prosecute. The IPCA is supposed to be a watchdog. Turns out to be more of a puppy – and very eager to please.