Justice Gnomes

The New Zealand Police [and Crown Law] appear to be adopting the Underpants Gnome strategy to deal with minor breaches of public order and transgressions against the general authority of the state:

1. Brutally arrest and lay spurious charges for general idiocy or mostly harmless defiance.
2. Weather firestorm of public and civil society outrage.
3. Drop or substantially downgrade charges after months (or years) of tedious ‘review’.
4. Insist that, despite expert opinions to the contrary, their original decision to lay charges — and the excessive means by which the arrests were effected — are perfectly justified.
5. ????
6. Profit!

This pattern holds in three high-profile cases that spring easily to mind: most clearly the “Urewera Terra” raids and subsequent fiasco, about which Pablo has written previously; more recently the case of Arie Smith, documented best by Russell Brown; and the pattern has today been completed by the decision to drop charges against Tiki Taane.

There are certainly other examples, which readers can discuss in comments. An exception to the pattern has been the Crown’s treatment of the Waihopai Three, who are being vexatiously pursued for damages they can’t pay, having been found not guilty by a jury of their peers. Pablo has written about this, also. In stark contrast to the high standard of conduct expected of random individuals stands the lax attitude towards police discipline, with egregious conduct documented or alleged in two out of three of those cases, and in others.

This coming weekend (weather & workload permitting) I’ll be visiting a block of land in Taranaki that the police had also pegged as housing “terrorist training camps” back in 2007. They failed to reach even the lax evidentiary requirements to gain the proper warrants to conduct raids there, but according to contemporaneous news reports they weren’t far off, and had dedicated considerable time, effort and money towards that end. Based on what I know about these particular circumstances, they would have roused a few kaumātua at Parihaka and its surrounds; some possum trappers, and depending on the day, perhaps a hunter or two (most likely Pākehā), since the most dangerous people in there are the folks who go in of a weekend with quad bikes and boxes of ammo and bottles of spirits to blaze mobs of goats, and leave them on the flats to rot as pig bait. Policing of this sort is a fool’s errand, and after nearly four years we have no reason to believe that those cases that had accrued slightly more evidence than the one of which I’m aware will have meaningfully more merit.

Watching and listening coverage of the 1981 Springbok tour riots this past week or so I’ve been struck by how his preoccupation with symbolic insults to law and order, rather than more substantive breaches, is reminiscent of police and government conduct under Muldoon, during that era — a short, sharp, shock doctrine of fiercely punishing trivial breaches in order to send a signal to those who would commit more serious actions. I don’t have time at present to go into a deep discussion of the implications of this activism among the police, and indeed Pablo has already covered much of that ground better than I could. But the apparent detachment between police command and both the ordinary citizens of the state and the country’s expert civil society agencies would be hilarious if it wasn’t so concerning.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this trend is that it serves to undermine the credibility of and public confidence in the police, which civil society needs to function. Especially at society’s margins — including Māori, the disabled, and activists — with whom police should be especially assiduous about building relationships.

Update: And would you look at that — right on cue, the remaining trumped-up firearms charges against the Urewera 18 have been dropped, on the grounds that continuing proceedings would not be in the public interest. Indeed. So, authoritarian apologists for the police state and anti-Māori revenge fantasists, how you like THEM apples?


Author: Lew

I call myself a sensible moderate, but not in the same way Peter Dunne does.

5 thoughts on “Justice Gnomes”

  1. I feel it would make sense to have a separate prosecution service on the Scottish (and latterly UK-wide) model.

    The cops wouldn’t like having to provide objective justification for each prosecution (as they don’t in the UK) but that’s probably a positive.

  2. Just a heads up Lew, I’m trying to promote a semi-alternative to the Underpants Gnome where the ‘PROFIT!’ payoff is replaced by ‘BENEFICIAL OUTCOMES!’ in cases like this where the Gnomes aren’t a profit-seeking entity. This might be a good time to use it…?

    More substantially this really seems idiotic, if indeed it is a strategy. The police pay all the costs involved of bringing this to trial – not just negative public opinion, but also manhours, equipment, training etc – and then fail to get even the minimal payoff of a conviction, even if it’s a conviction less substantial than they initially sought. It’s like training for the Olympics for years and then deciding it’s too much hard work and you want to stop and watch TV in the last lap of the 5000m.

    Granted it’s probably got a lot to do with shifting goalposts – the police don’t realise that the public opinion backlash doesn’t just accrue to them but to the legal framework they’re trying to operate in.

    The more cynical part of me thinks that, in an environment where the police are trying to expand their budget, they simply need to mount big, high-profile operations like this to avoid getting their anti-terrorist functions (and resourcing) taken off them in some future priorities reshuffle.

  3. Of course the cops are blowing their credibility, just like parliament, just like the courts, because in the age of wikileaks the informed public has opened the books and found out all the secrets. The state is not neutral and civil society is class society. We are indignant at being reduced to commodities. Rise up the wikileaks generation of judges and juries of the Tahrir squares.

  4. Hugh, the thing about the Underpants Gnome strategy is that it isn’t a strategy — it’s a spurious justification for a given course of action. Everything other than #1 is arbitrary or incidental. It is idiotic; that’s the point.

    Of course, they do have a beneficial outcome of some sort — they’re not just harassing people for no reason, and they certainly don’t surveil and harass and charge in the knowledge that their charges will be thrown out; I’m certain that they genuinely believe this sort of action is worth taking, that it serves some beneficial purpose.

    The question is, beneficial for whom? There’s something to be said about the distinction between the brass and the bobbies here; while I have concerns about police culture I generally think individual police are fine — and without exception, every one I’ve dealt with has been just great; dedicated, honest, reasonable. But these are the guys carrying out the orders, not those making the decisions upon which those orders are given. Though in some cases individual police conduct — especially by the STG in the Urewera raids, and allegedly in Arie Smith’s case — it’s the orders themselves, and the operational parameters, framing and rules of engagement which are predominantly at fault. Without the framing of the 2007 raids as ‘terrorism’ and the police consequently being primed for violent resistance and persuaded that a vulgar display of power was required, it would have been an altogether more benign affair.

    As to why the brass are so keen to overextend — many possible explanations here, and I don’t think yours is too far from the mark. My observation would be that policing culture reflects the predominant political culture (we’re back to Muldoon again). In an environment of heightened awareness of activism and terrorist threats such as obtained in the mid-Oughties (especially regarding Māori) the absence of actual threats perhaps rendered it necessary for some to be invented.


  5. Lew: “My observation would be that policing culture reflects the predominant political culture (we’re back to Muldoon again). In an environment of heightened awareness of activism and terrorist threats such as obtained in the mid-Oughties (especially regarding Māori) the absence of actual threats perhaps rendered it necessary for some to be invented. ”

    Has Orwell’s perpetual war come to pass? Or could it be an inkling that the fault lines of 1981 are re-emerging?

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