Systemic change possible

It would once have been unthinkable: that sexual abuse survivors' advocate Louise Nicholas would be both praising police and working alongside them.

But, decades after Mrs Nicholas alleged she was raped and sexually assaulted by police officers in the 1980s, and the initial investigation mishandled, the climate in the country's law enforcement ranks could not be more different.

It has been a long, tortuous and tortured road, stretching back to the first alleged rape in 1984 when Mrs Nicholas was 13, and her first complaint to police in 1993. Since then there has been constant public, media and legal scrutiny and three high-profile trials (the first two were ruled mistrials).

The initial police officer at the centre of the allegations received permanent name suppression and has never been publicly identified. He and co-accused then assistant police commissioner Clint Rickards and former policemen Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum were all tried and acquitted. It was subsequently revealed Messrs Shipton and Schollum were serving jail sentences for the unrelated rape of another woman in the 1980s. (Mr Shipton confessed to his part in that pack rape during his first parole hearing.)

Mr Rickards was suspended from his position and resigned three years later in 2007. Detective Inspector John Dewar, who was in charge of Mrs Nicholas' original rape complaint, and involved in the later trials, was found guilty of, and jailed for, attempting to obstruct or defeat the course of justice.

A Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct was announced in 2004 by then prime minister Helen Clark. It was headed by Dame Margaret Bazley, whose 2007 report identified systemic and behavioural problems which contributed to major failings in the way police handled sexual assault cases. Her report contained 60 recommendations for change, 47 of which were police-specific, and the rest for what would become the Independent Police Conduct Authority and the Government.

The changes have been implemented and monitored as part of a decade-long programme and the final report documenting the police response was released this week (The final review of the changes by the Auditor-general, who is the overseer, is due later this year).

All recommendations have been adopted - including establishing a code of conduct, a process specifically for complaints against police, a new disciplinary process, putting more resources into specialist units such as adult sexual assault investigations, and greater gender equality and ethnic diversity within the force.

Mrs Nicholas, now a police adviser, says the attitude change within the police is significant and the culture today markedly different. Notably, police are no longer judgemental of victims, but empathetic.

She says the police must ensure their work continues in the same vein, however, and Police Commissioner Mike Bush is making all the right noises about doing so.

As the 10 years of monitoring comes to an end, this will certainly be another test. Without oversight, it could be all too easy for complacency to set in.

Yet, as another government agency is overhauled (state care and protection services) there is concrete evidence that major systemic change is possible - even within a relatively short time - if the political will is there and the right people lead the charge.

For anyone who doubts the system is too big to confront - let alone alter - or that one person can make a difference, the change in police today is surely living proof the unthinkable is possible.


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