Police officer punctured a man’s lung and broke his neck, but will face no consequences

Police officer punctured a man’s lung and broke his neck, but will face no consequences

The IPCA has found that a police officer used excessive force when arresting a man in Hastings in January 2021.

As a result of the force used to arrest the man, he sustained serious injuries including a punctured right lung, fractured ribs, a fractured neck vertebrate [sic], and a cut on his scalp.

IPCA – Use of force in Hastings not justified

A Police dog handler followed Mr X because they considered he was driving “a suspicious car”. After he stopped and got out, an officer told him to stay where he was, but Mr X ran away. Police then found a rifle in his car.

Police failed to track the man at the time, but around three hours later he was spotted by the same dog handler. He told the man he was under arrest, but he ran away again. Police eventually found Mr X hiding in a skip bin in a construction site.

In the construction site, the two officers attempting to arrest Mr X both pepper sprayed him. The IPCA determined that this use of force was justified.

However, after he had been pepper sprayed the man lay face down on the ground. An officer jumped onto the man’s back, “breaking the fall with his knee”. The IPCA believes this caused significant injuries to the man including fractured ribs, a punctured lung, and a fractured neck vertebra.

While this police officer, called Officer A in the IPCA’s report, was pinning Mr X to the ground, he began punching Mr X in the head in an attempt to get Mr X to move his hands out from under his body so he could be handcuffed.

The IPCA has determined that this use of force was excessive, and unlawful:

we do not accept that Officer A reasonably believed that Mr X was fleeing or otherwise attempting to avoid arrest at that time. Officer A was therefore not justified under section 40 in jumping on Mr X as he did.

we do not accept that it was reasonable for Officer A to punch Mr X in the head several times to get him to release his arms, even believing there was a remote possibility that he could have a weapon on his person.

IPCA – Use of force in Hastings not justified

NZ Police published a statement saying they “acknowledge” the IPCA’s report, but they did not say that they accept the findings.

Despite the IPCA’s finding that Officer A broke the law, NZ Police gave no indication that they would be charging Officer A, or that he would be facing any consequences outside the courtroom. It seems as though Officer A will not face any consequences whatsoever.

NZ Police had already conducted an investigation of their own and, of course, decided that Officer A did nothing wrong. In their response to the IPCA’s findings, NZ Police merely said that the man’s severe injuries were “regrettable”, and referred to “circumstances where [officers] must resort to using force.”

This is yet another example of corruption in NZ Police. If Mr X had broken Officer A’s ribs, punctured his lung, and broke his neck, we can all be certain that NZ Police would have come down on him with the full weight of the law. But instead we see that Officer A is protected from the consequences of his unlawful actions for one simple reason – he is a police officer, and NZ Police protects their own.

Because NZ Police refuses to hold their own people responsible for abuses of power, we need to reform the law so the IPCA has the power and resources to prosecute police officers like Officer A.

The IPCA should audit NZ Police’s use of attack dogs

The IPCA should audit NZ Police’s use of attack dogs

Today, the IPCA released its investigation report into an incident in April 2021, during which a police attack dog was used against a man who violently resisted arrest for having stolen a car. The dog’s bites significantly injured the man, and he required surgery. These significant injuries led NZ Police to notify the IPCA about the incident.

The IPCA found that, in this particular case, the use of an attack dog was justified. Though in the media release accompanying the report, IPCA chair Judge Colin Doherty said:

Because of the likelihood of injury caused by a biting dog, we consider the use of a Police dog to be a significant use of force, only justifiable in specific circumstances. On its own, apprehending the driver of a stolen car will not often warrant such significant force.

IPCA Chair Judge Colin Doherty

NZ Police’s response to this report was brief, primarily just saying that NZ Police accepted the IPCA’s findings.

When I investigated NZ Police’s use of attack dogs in 2018, I found that the two most common charges laid following the use of an attack dog were “traffic offences” and “car conversion etc”.

Also, 76% of the incidents where NZ Police set attack dogs on people in 2018, those people were below the “assaultive” threshold. Most of the time, they were recorded as “active resistant”, meaning they were pushing away, pulling away, or running away.

Using attack dogs against people who are unarmed and running away is the norm for NZ Police’s dog handlers, and often they had stolen a car.

So, if the IPCA considers that “On its own, apprehending the driver of a stolen car will not often warrant such significant force [as the use of a Police dog]”, then I can’t help but wonder how many unreported incidents where police set attack dogs on people would be found to be unjustified if investigated by the IPCA.

NZ Police has shown a clear unwillingness to address the harms done by their attack dog programme. In their annual use of force reports, they typically dismiss the incredibly high injury rate of their attack dogs rather than acknowledging it as a real concern. The majority of moderate and serious injuries caused by police use of force are inflicted by their attack dogs.

In this case, NZ Police reported the incident to the IPCA themselves. I don’t know how often this happens for incidents where attack dogs were used. Based on the number of investigation reports published by the IPCA, it seems unlikely to me that NZ Police report every incident during which one of their attack dogs seriously injures someone. Though it may instead be that the IPCA either doesn’t publish its findings for many of these investigations or that it doesn’t always investigate these incidents when they’re reported.

Based on Judge Doherty’s statement and my analysis of NZ Police’s data regarding their use of attack dogs, I think it’s likely that the IPCA would find many unreported uses of attack dogs by NZ Police to have not been justified under the law. Considering the significant harm done by this tactical option, I’d like to see the IPCA conduct an audit NZ Police’s use of attack dogs.

Police officer assaulted youth over cigarettes

Police officer assaulted youth over cigarettes

In July 2019, an off-duty police officer followed a 14 year old boy who he suspected of having stolen a packet of cigarettes. When he caught up with the boy and his friend, he grabbed the boy’s friend by the collar, then punched the first boy twice in the face, knocking him to the ground.

The boy’s condition deteriorated after this, and he had to be taken to hospital because of a suspected fractured eye socket.

The boy also said the officer kicked him while he was on the ground.

This incident was unusual in that NZ Police charged their officer with injuring with intent to injure. However, the charge was dismissed by the Crown after two jury trials in 2020 and 2021 during which the jury could not reach a verdict.

Though it’s not clear why the jury couldn’t reach a verdict in these trials, New Zealand’s culture of respect and deference to police officers makes it difficult to hold police to account for abusing their powers, even in the rare case in which NZ Police decides to charge one of their officers with a crime.

Today, the IPCA has released its report into the incident, which had been delayed due to the court proceedings. In it, they found that:

Officer A had no legal justification to punch Mr X.

The [Independent Police Conduct] Authority is unable to determine whether Officer A kicked Mr X.

IPCA – Off-duty Police officer punches youth who stole cigarettes

In its response, NZ Police said “Police acknowledge and accept these findings”. In addition to the court action, NZ Police conducted an employment investigation, resulting in a finding of serious misconduct. NZ Police says the officer is no longer employed by NZ Police, though it’s not clear if he resigned or if he was fired.

NZ Police has special rules for off-duty interventions. A version of this Police Manual chapter was released under the OIA in November 2019 and in July 2020, and is available on policepolicy.nz: Off-duty interventions

This “Officer A” has also had his identity kept secret, though as far as I can tell from the statements from the IPCA and NZ Police, there doesn’t appear to have been any name suppression involved. Rather, this seems like another example of the culture of secrecy surrounding police misconduct, where the identities of police officers who abuse their power are kept secret forever.

NZ Police refuse to prosecute officer for unjustified kick to the head

NZ Police refuse to prosecute officer for unjustified kick to the head

In March 2021, two police officers tried to arrest a man for disorderly behaviour. During the arrest, the man kicked both the officers in the head while he was on the ground. After one of the officers was kicked, he kicked the man back in the head, knocking his head against the driveway and leaving him unresponsive for 30 seconds.

The IPCA has ruled that the officer was not justified in kicking the man’s head. The officer claimed he did this in self defence, which is a legal defence against assault under s48 of the Crimes Act. But the IPCA disagreed, saying the obvious response would have been to step away from the man.

Having viewed CCTV footage of the arrest, and interviewed the officers, the IPCA said that they “doubt that [Officer A] is telling the truth… we consider Officer A acted out of anger and in retaliation for being kicked himself.”

They conclude:

As we have found that Officer A was not acting for the purpose of self-defence, the kick cannot
be legally justified.

IPCA – Head kick to man during Christchurch arrest unjustified

The IPCA also went on to consider whether or not the kick would have been justified if Officer A was telling the truth, and they still determined that he would not have been legally justified in kicking the man as he did.

NZ Police’s response is typical for this kind of finding. They claim to “accept” the IPCA’s ruling, but provide no evidence that the officer has faced any consequences for what appears to have been an assault.

In fact, NZ Police charged the man with assault, because he had kicked their officers in the head. But Police chose not to charge their own officer with kicking him back in the head, even though that kick did considerably more harm. Police have only confirmed that Officer A is still a member of New Zealand Police.

This decision by NZ Police, to not charge a member of their own with assault even though they charged the member of the public with assault, is a very clear example of the double standard used by NZ Police when it comes to holding people accountable for violence.

NZ Police using their power of prosecutorial discretion to protect their own from the consequences of abusing their power is, to put it simply, corruption. It happens time and time again.

We need to reform the IPCA to allow them the power to prosecute police officers, as they have told parliament is necessary.

Currently, where the IPCA conducts an investigation and decides that prosecution is warranted, it must refer those matters to the Police. The Police then have sole authority over whether to prosecute or take disciplinary action. However, the IPCA said that the Police may, at times, lack objectivity and may not always strike the correct balance between dealing with conduct issues and being a good employer.

The IPCA noted that similar bodies in other jurisdictions can pursue prosecutions themselves. It said it could be given the same powers. Alternatively, it suggested that it could refer prosecution decisions to a different authority, such as the Solicitor-General, rather than to the Police.

IPCA | Response to Petition of Conrad Petersen

We need to talk about police dogs

We need to talk about police dogs

It’s time we had a national conversation about if the way police dogs are currently used does more harm than it’s worth.

Earlier today, I published a feature on the use of police dogs in New Zealand, based on Tactical Options Reporting (TOR) data detailing police use of force which was released under the Official Information Act.

A shorter version has also been published on The Spinoff.

I hope you’ll take the time to read my full article on this. I think it’s a very important topic that isn’t talked about enough in New Zealand, and we should very seriously consider whether or not current practices are worth the harm they cause. But I’d also like to talk a little about the process of writing it.

Getting this data has been difficult. Each year, NZ Police publishes a summary of the use of force data for this year – its Tactical Options Research Reports – but they don’t contain everything. When the first set of raw data was released in March 2017, covering July-December 2016, I took it apart and discovered things I hadn’t known by reading the reports.

Using that data, and later including data covering later periods, I experimented with my first attempt at interactive data visualisation with a focus on how NZ Police’s application of force has a disproportionate impact on Māori.

That interactive ended up accompanying an NZ Herald article about how NZ Police use tactical options, including an incident during which an attack dog was set on an unarmed 12 year old girl. This incident only came to light because NZ Police released the raw data.

Despite it being 2021 now, my recent feature relies on TOR data covering 2018. After releasing the third set of TOR data, NZ Police began to refuse my requests for more data unless I would pay hundreds of dollars first. It took several requests over two years, and a complaint to the Ombudsman that took 9 months to resolve, before NZ Police finally released TOR data covering 2018.

I think this is data NZ Police should release proactively each year, but I’ve yet to see how they will react when I inevitably request TOR data covering 2019.

When they released the 2018 data, NZ Police also asked that:

To ensure data accuracy and integrity, NZ Police recommends that members of the public access use of force data directly via the OIA process and/or through the NZ Police Annual Tactical Options Report series

Unfortunately, I haven’t found the OIA process to be very quick. Practically every OIA request I’ve sent to NZ Police has taken over a month to get a response, and often that delay has been unlawful.

There are some cases, when you know exactly what questions you want to ask, when asking their OIA team can be a good course of action. Though if you have a good understanding of the data, having access to it can often help you answer questions yourself in a fraction of the time, without taking up anyone else’s resources.

For example, in November 2019 when the Mental Health Foundation was speaking out about its opposition to Police’s “Armed Response Teams” trial, it cited figures from Police’s 2016 TOR report about the disproportionate use of tasers against mentally ill people:

(Despite my expectation at the time, I didn’t have the 2018 data released to me for over a year after this tweet)

Though Police did report this statistic in their 2016 report, they chose not to include it in their 2017 report.

Though, when TASER was deployed, it was more likely to be discharged at subjects with perceived mental distress, irrespective of whether the subjects were armed or not, with a show to discharge ratio of 4:1 (compared to 6:1 for subjects with no perceived distress).

NZ Police Annual Tactical Options Research Report #5 (PDF Link)

Because I had access to the TOR data covering 2017, I was able to quickly determine what the relevant statistic was for 2017:

In 2017, police discharged tasers in 14.4% of incidents where they used them against a person who did not have a mental illness. But they discharged tasers in 25.4% of cases where the person did have a mental illness.

But this is a comparatively minor positive from having access to the raw data. The real benefit comes from the ability to do exploratory analysis.

Simply put, you don’t know what you don’t know. The answer to one question can prompt five more, and only one of those answers might be of interest. Going through the OIA process for this, with delays of a month or more for each answer, would be a painfully slow process.

Having had access to the full 2018 data, however, allowed me to do an exploratory analysis. I had intended for some time to write about the use of police dogs, since seeing the alarmingly high injury rate of police dogs when compared with other tactical options. This injury rate has been consistently reported in Police’s summary reports, and some related statistics can be calculated from the figures presented in them. But more complex and specific figures are absent. The data set is simply too large to present all of it in a summary report.

Even the cut down data that was released to me under the OIA, after Police recoded and withheld many columns in consultation with the Ombudsman to sufficiently anonymise the data, it was still 4,324 rows and 422 columns.

Alongside my police dogs feature, I published a “codebook” containing all the code I used to process the data, and to produce each of the figures and charts used in the article. But I wasn’t able to also document the whole process of my exploratory analysis here, including all the questions and answers that didn’t make it into the final article. Perhaps the closest I came was in printing out the summary of each column to see what it contained.

Most of the interesting insights in this data comes from interactions between columns. One of the two core figures in my article was one that I hadn’t expected to find, and only discovered through exploratory analysis while looking at the “PCA” columns describing how police officers categorised subjects’ behaviour.

In 76% of incidents when police officers set attack dogs on people in 2018, those people were below the “assaultive” threshold. That is, they were not expressing any intent to cause harm, either verbally or through their body language or actions.

Almost every time that happened — 73% of all attack dogs uses in 2018 — NZ Police recorded those people as being “active resistant”. They were pushing away, pulling away, or running away.

When I had begun writing my article, I hadn’t yet realised that most of the moderate and serious injuries inflicted by police were caused by police dogs, but this is something I could have determined from the information in Police’s annual TOR reports.

Once I saw this, I expected it to be the central figure in my article, but finding that the vast majority of the time police dogs were directed to bite people they were just trying to get away it was clear that this added a very important context to their use, and to the harm they do. If I didn’t have access to the data, I doubt I’d ever have learned that this was the case.

Knowing the right question to ask is often the hardest part of investigating something like this. Without being able to do this sort of exploratory analysis, finding the right question can be a very difficult task.

I really hope NZ Police will continue to release their use of force data year on year. It’s too important a topic to not be subjected to independent scrutiny.

NZ Police pursuits keep killing people

NZ Police pursuits keep killing people

Despite a repeated cycle of calls for change, people keep dying in police pursuits in New Zealand. Just today, a teenager and a child died as the result of a police pursuit in Palmerston North.

News stories like these keep appearing. In February this year I asked NZ Police to release a number of statistics regarding police pursuits so I could examine what, if anything, has changed. I began to write about it in March but didn’t end up publishing it, having intended to put it on a new “features” subdomain I’ve been working on where I’ll be able to do some more complicated stuff than WordPress will allow.

One of the statistics I included was the number of people who have died as a result of police pursuits since the most recent review began. I’ve gotten very sick of having to update that number. So out of that frustration, I’ve published my article. You can read it here: NZ Police pursuits keep killing people