Welcome to the grim realities of the police portfolio

What was it that Mike Moore - the politician, not the film-maker - once said about Auckland being New Zealand's answer to Los Angeles?

Last week's crazed rampage by a gunman along a city motorway which culminated in a teenage courier driver being mistakenly shot by police, plus last Tuesday's hostage drama at a Burger King outlet in Manukau, could have come straight out of the pages of the Los Angeles Times.

As has long been the case with the inhabitants of the City of the Angels, Aucklanders too are becoming inured to such shocking crimes becoming the norm.

Mr Moore's point was that Auckland, like California in the United States, is always the first place in the country to experience the good, the bad and the truly ugly.

However, the rest of the country soon follows in the wake of its metropolitan big brother.

Right on cue, the mayhem in Auckland was replicated in the provinces with the deliberate hit-and run killing of a 16-year-old youth in Murupara, the fatal stabbing of a man outside a rural Hawkes Bay pub for acting the Good Samaritan, and a Taranaki taxi driver being left to die in the locked boot of his car following a savage beating.

Those still capable of being shocked talked of the victims being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But that cliche has become a comfort blanket that says it can't or won't happen to me.

Those who died or were injured in these "incidents" - another euphemism - were in the right place, the place they wanted to be and had every right to be without fear of harm.

The past week's catalogue of horrors serve as a belated welcome to the grim realities of the police portfolio for Judith Collins, who for good measure also landed the thankless job of Minister of Corrections.

The latter task has the tough and tenacious National frontbencher inheriting a department essentially at war with itself.

The frontline staff in the jails don't trust the officials at head office and vice versa.

The department's chief executive, the long-suffering Barry Matthews, has been told by successive ministers to sort things out and have a cleanout of underperforming underlings.

Mr Matthews has made progress. But Ms Collins, who talks optimistically of Corrections developing a "commitment to excellence", will be a hard task-mistress.

She is not going to allow her name to be added to the list of political casualties who have fallen victim to the department's shortcomings.

Labour is already targeting her on Corrections' track record of being a no-win portfolio. However, while there have already been prison escapes under her watch, the spotlight is beamed squarely on the police.

Public reaction to the violence of the past week or so has been muted.

Put that down to sympathy for the police over the motorway shooting, to the fixation with the economy, and to it being too soon to blame the new Government for not tackling society's ills.

The feeling that National's honeymoon continues was confirmed by last week's Roy Morgan poll, which registered barely a flicker of change on last November's election result.

That has not deterred Labour from being extraordinarily active at such an early stage of the year in characterising the Government as inactive, first on the economy and now law and order.

National will answer the latter criticism with a pile of justice Bills which will be introduced into Parliament when the House sits the week after next.

Among the measures pending is legislation fulfilling National's promise to tackle youth crime, clamp down on gangs and ensure worst repeat violent offenders are ineligible for parole.

Labour will variously argue that it had already taken such action in government that National's measures are token and will make no difference to the level of offending, and, in the case of gangs, that the legislation may not go far enough and gangs should be banned outright.

Then, when it comes to the vote, politics will dictate that Labour supports most of the measures - the case with the Bail Amendment Bill before Christmas and which its MPs rubbished during debate.

New to the portfolio areas of police and Corrections, Ms Collins is already coming under the hammer from Labour's new, eager and combat-hardened law and order spokesman, Clayton Cosgrove.

He will be backed up by his leader, Phil Goff, who has long taken a tough line on crime and firmly believes Labour needs to reconnect with voters when it comes to law-and-order policy.

Ms Collins, however, will give as good as she gets. She has been accusing Labour of having politicised the police during its time in government.

What she means is that rather than getting on with the job, the police have become handicapped by having to second-guess whether what they were doing was politically acceptable to cabinet ministers.

She cites Helen Clark's off-the-record verification of the circumstances which led to the sacking of former police commissioner Peter Doone in 2000 as the start of Labour's assault on police confidence and independence.

That was followed by Miss Clark's questioning whether police had a shoot-to-kill policy after the death of Steven Wallace in Waitara in April of that year.

The police have since taken further hits to morale through Dame Margaret Bazley's three-year commission of inquiry into allegations of police sexual misconduct, the Clint Rickards court case and the self-inflicted fiasco of the Urewera terrorist raids, and now calls for the member of the armed offenders squad who shot 17-year-old Halatau Naitoko to face prosecution.

Ms Collins claims Labour is continuing to politicise the police, the latest example being an invitation to Auckland police commanders to Labour's caucus meeting last Tuesday at Mt Wellington's Waipuna Lodge so the party's MPs could "hear the views from the Auckland region".

The accusation is heartily rejected by Labour, which says the invitation was to a wider meeting of "community stakeholders" to discuss the challenges facing Auckland.

That police did not show and instead passed the invitation to their minister indicates the sensitivity surrounding the matter, at the same time underlining Ms Collins' argument that the police are too reactive to political currents and, as she puts it, have become "disconnected" from the communities they serve.

Her vision for the police is a return to "basics" - what she calls "grassroots policing" where the police are seen in the community and people feel safer as a consequence.

To that end, the Government will draft 300 extra sworn officers into frontline duties in South Auckland.

Straitened times or not, Ms Collins intends holding police chiefs accountable for the success or failure of such initiatives.

The politics are simple, however.

Ms Collins wants to get the public on National's side by being seen as the police's advocate at the cabinet table, while isolating Labour by painting the Opposition as undermining the confidence, morale and credibility of the force.

John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.


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