Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Addressing the Police

Blair Mulholland calls the New Zealand Police a disgrace. In many respects I agree. In my encounters with the Police on a public policy level I wasn't surprised that the prevailing view was "give us more powers", "you can trust us", "it's us against the scum". You don't look for protection of privacy and individual rights by asking the Police what to do.
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Policing is a core role of the state. There is a fundamental expectation that government will supply the public with an agency you can call upon to respond to crime, to deter crime, and to put in place order when people act disorderly or in a threatening manner. It is, quite simply, protecting our lives, liberties and property from those who threaten it. In that respect we should be grateful for the Police and they should be considered our friends, the so called "thin blue line" between anarchy and peace.
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However.
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Having the authority to arrest people, to use violence against people and the culture and training needed for people to undertake what can be a dangerous and threatening job does bring with it enormous risks. The obvious one is corruption, as badly paid cops can be "paid off" by organised crime to turn the other cheek. Even well paid cops can be tempted by luxury items and all sorts of goodies, you only need to look at Australia to see a policing culture endemically malignant with corruption, albeit efforts to reduce this have been somewhat successful.
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Another risk is the ability to use violence to threaten and intimidate to engage in criminal behaviour. When those who are meant to protect you do the opposite then where do you go? It is rather akin to parents who abuse their kids.
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More common is the way the Police can be politicised. Clearly the Police have not acted when there may be reason to do so against the PM's high speed cavalcade in the South Island a few years ago, or under the Electoral Act. The mere fact of concern about this should concern the Police, but it is a closed shop - and this is the most fundamental problem of all - accountability.
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The Police operate as a quasi-military hierarchy. Questioning those above you is difficult and unpopular, but more importantly actually getting the Police to respond to incentives on performance is tricky at best. Holding back funding and the Police know exactly how to pull the heart strings of the public by cynically reducing Police Station hours and saying there will be less cops "on the beat". They could do less traffic work, or be more administratively efficient, or target less victimless crimes, but no - they always want more money, and they are more popular than teachers and nurses.
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You see to have a Police strike worries people, and if you think performance pay for the Police is easy then think again. If a Minister says the Police get nothing more, they strike or rally for public support, and the incumbent government looks "soft on crime" or "mean to the wonderful Police".
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Police performance is a huge issue. It's not just that having a car stolen is almost not worth reporting beyond insurance purposes, but that if the Police don't respond what can you do? Take the matter into your own hands and they don't like the competition. The legend that if you call the Police concerned you have an intruder they'll respond quicker if you say you have a gun is more fact than fiction. Indeed, the Police will go for drug offences more than any property offences. Who knows why they seem keen to prosecute cases of consensual adult incest?
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So what to do?
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First, review all criminal law to eliminate victimless crimes. This will, at least, stop the Police from pursuing people who hurt no one. This means changes to drug laws, to focus attention on supply to minors, and away from personal use in the home where there are no children.
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Second, contract out those activities that the Police need not do. This means community support and many traffic activities (including directing traffic at accidents). The Police could bid for such work, but the role should be confined to law enforcement.
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Thirdly, split the Police into local authority controlled entities and a central crime intelligence agency (to handle organised crime and cross border crime). Put local Police into democratically elected control, so that communities can monitor performance, with elected commissioners. Commissioners and Police subject to independent pay reviews, so they are driven by performance not political pressure. The central agency works for the local ones, and is judged by them.
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Fourthly, review the right to self defence of body and property. The laws are adequate, but it is worthy reminding the Police of these rights.
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Finally, a fuller review of sentencing and the approach to recividist offenders. Repeat offenders who should be in prison for life are set free, receive benefits and raise children. It's time to no longer tolerate those who, having committed a crime and given a chance to rehabilitate, hurt more people. They should be removed from circulation if they are repeat violent or sex offenders. This should reduce the workload of the Police.
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There is no simple solution, some argue privatising and opening the Police to competition may help. While it may be helpful for direct action against offenders, it is unlikely to be so when undertaking major investigations or dealing with organised crime. However, I am happy to hear from those who think private competitive policing could work, and avoid the risk of police being bought and sold by wealthy criminals, or politicians.
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This is an issue that will be central to political debate when a libertarian government has shrunk the state to its core roles.
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UPDATE: Forgot Trevor Loudon's recommendations to improve the Police, they are worth looking at (Hat Tip: Not PC)

5 comments:

sean14 said...

Thanks Scott, a thought-provoking and informative post as always.

Cheers, Sean.

Ad Libertas said...

Scott: Do you think NZ has a place for bounty hunters?

tzx said...

"However, I am happy to hear from those who think private competitive policing could work, and avoid the risk of police being bought and sold by wealthy criminals, or politicians."

It's good you are open to alternatives. Of course the risk you mention can't be avoided but isn't that risk greater under the present system? Also it's much easier to stop supporting a private company if corruption sets in.

Note also that a government controlled police force has one other duty in addition to crime prevention: it must forcibly prevent any competition. And to my mind, that's not very libertarian!

Phil (Pacific Empire) said...

TZX - uh, where did you get that idea? Even our current government doesn't forcibly prevent private security companies or private detectives from operating. And all citizens currently have the right to use reasonable force in self-defense, and the right to carry out citizen's arrests.

Libertarianz policies and constitution offer no basis for your assertion. In fact we would allow security companies to arm themselves and strengthen the rights of individuals to use force to protect their property and detain criminals. Of course, their actions would be subject to judicial oversight, but the point is that competition would still exist.

tzx said...

Phil, sure you would allow security companies to arm themselves and for private individuals to better protect themselves, but these do not constitute a fully-fledged police force. LibertyScott said "Policing is a core role of the state" implying that only the state can run a fully-fledged police force. And, therefore, at some level, competition must be smothered.