Police culture change overdue

Workplace bullying within the police has ramifications wider than the effect on those directly involved.

The 115-page report from the Independent Police Conduct Authority "Bullying, Culture and Related Issues in New Zealand Police", released last week, says the negative culture it found did not permeate every workplace.

At the same time, however, the IPCA chairman, Judge Colin Doherty, said it was sufficiently prevalent to raise concern.

This acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation is refreshing following the playing down of this we saw by former police commissioner Mike Bush and former police minister Stuart Nash.

Full marks to RNZ reporter Ben Strang whose tenacity on this story over two years has helped keep shameful behaviour under the spotlight. Anyone who has experienced the shattering and life-changing impact of workplace bullying would recognise the bravery of those police officers or former officers who spoke publicly or to the IPCA.

The authority interviewed more than 200 current and former police staff about their experiences and observations of police culture fostering or permitting bullying, harassment or other poor behaviour.

The report identified seven themes underlying the interviewees’ negative experiences: intolerance of questioning or dissent; favouritism and protectionism; marginalisation and ostracism; abuse and intimidatory conduct; sexist and racist behaviour; inappropriate office culture, and lack of empathy and caring.

While we accept the police is a large organisation and that in any such body there will be pockets of bad behaviour, these themes are concerning.

On the issue of not tolerating questioning or dissent, we acknowledge there will always be times on the front line when it is essential orders are followed quickly and without second-guessing. However, in other circumstances, including the investigation of crimes, surely encouraging a wide range of views is simply good practice.

And, if some police are practising abuse and intimidatory conduct or sexist and racist behaviour, how well might they recognise and deal with members of the public doing the same?

The alcohol culture persisting in some workplaces, including regular "jug sessions" where staff who made mistakes could be required to skull a jug of beer at the next session, a practice encouraging marginalisation, seems bizarre in a force which is regularly at the sharp end of other people’s irresponsible drinking.

As the IPCA pointed out, this aspect of the culture was drawn to the attention of the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct in 2007.

"While it is undoubtedly correct that such practices are far less common than they used to be, it is disappointing to find they still exist at all."

We could not agree more.

Another of the worrying aspects of the report concerned record keeping.

The IPCA found there was no single record of complaints or grievances against an individual, or of any action that may have been taken against them because of those complaints or grievances.

It also found it "alarming" to encounter cases where there had been several previous complaints of personal grievances about a person known to the authority, and perhaps even more complaints through the confidential "Speak Up" service, but those who had to deal with a new complaint had no knowledge of or access to that history.

Until this weakness was addressed, a major risk remained that patterns of bullying and other oppressive conduct would continue to go unrecognised and unaddressed.

The authority believes there are positive signs the organisation has turned a corner under the current commissioner and is expecting regular reports on progress. We hope its optimism is well-placed. This has gone on far too long.


Add a Comment