Sunday, 28 Oct 2007

Deep in the forest: Ross Meurant

Sunday Star Times | Saturday, 27 October 2007
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David White/Sunday Star-Times

CHANGED MAN: Ross Meurant believes police culture is introverted, self protecting and lacking objectivity.

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Ross Meurant explains in his own words on how he has changed, how police culture has not, and why we should hold off on new anti-terror legislation.

Like most recruits, I entered the police as an impressionable young man with a basic education, from a working class environment in provincial NZ. There were hundreds of peers like me, before me and after me. I was nothing special but I was altruistic. We were all cannon fodder. Easy to manipulate. We looked at the forest before us in awe.

The moment you step into the police, this subculture within NZ culture hits you. You are immediately part of the thin blue line. You are part of a team and that team looks after itself. You are special. You are the border between good and evil. The attitudes of the police instructors, armed not with teaching certificates but with ten years' exposure to the police subculture, either consciously or subconsciously invite you into the forest.

To step out of police college is to take the next step into the forest. You are now part of the difference between law and order in the streets where gangs would rule and evil would triumph. But for you and your fellow coppers, society would be a dangerous place. Your mission is to protect society from this evil. Very soon you learn to decide what is evil and what is not. You are no longer just a collector of human rubbish at the base of the cliff but you have an obligation; yes, even a duty to guide the country to a decent society. That direction is best decided by you and others in your sub culture of police, for what better epitomises the values of a decent society than those cherished by the men and women in blue? Your task is honourable. What better vocation than to rid the country of evil? Thus, achieving this end can even justify the means!

The further into the forest, the more pervasive becomes this police culture. The heart of the beast is centered in elite CIB squads like Regional Crime, Criminal Intelligence and Drug Squad. These are the destinations to which the most ambitious and zealous aspire. Together with the Armed Offenders Squad and Team Policing units, these entities are the bastion of police culture.

Of course there are those who do not aspire to these objectives but then, the police is also a government department, which always harbour a good number of "glide timers": there to collect their pay and do as little as possible, which is the best route to longevity in any government agency. Often these people will suddenly find themselves floating on the top of the pool.

Every new entrant runs the same gauntlet. No recruit is ever formally "taught" to use violence, to lie and cover up. None of my mentors did that to me and I never did it to those whom I mentored. But the culture sends a very clear message. "When you witness transgression by a colleague, keep your mouth shut at worst and at best, provide an account which supports the miscreant and helps him/her out of a sticky situation."

If you don't, as a new recruit, you are ostracised. You may as well quit there and then. But once you have provided succor, you have taken your next step into the forest. Later you will witness another indiscretion and you will again "cover". After all, you have been accepted as one of the team. You are "reliable". To lose that status is not a desirable outcome. But already you are compromised. Then one day you will commit an indiscretion and others will cover for you. Then you are beholden. Then you have entered the forest proper. There is no light to show the way home.

When I speak about a police culture, I speak about the environment I have described. It is introverted, self protecting and lacking objectivity. It is a culture which looks after itself and has a certain view of how life should proceed. It is reinforced by drinking and bonding sessions. The "them and us" ethos becomes tangible. What is more, the culture is working class conservative in its origins. Bigoted and intolerant. Few of its officer corps are university graduates and even fewer hail from private schools. There is no network which pervades the upper echelons of society. The police are insular.

If someone has tattoos or hair too long or dresses the "wrong" way or does not have "acceptable" politics, then they are one of "them" and not to be trusted. Conversely liberals are a menace to stability and are even more dangerous than unemployed Maori.

I recall when as a detective in the mid seventies, I applied to go to university and was asked by my commissioned officer: ?Meurant. Why do you want to go to university? Are you a communist?? The message was pretty clear. This was at the height of Vietnam. The police subculture did not approve of its members being associated with undesirable elements who frequented establishments of enlightenment.

When I did finally go to university I found my lecturers to include Michael Basset, Phil Goff and Helen Clark, all of whom where later my peers in parliament but who at the time I entered university shared decidedly different political beliefs to me. Yet even though I argued, as an example, that US foreign policy in Vietnam was "defensive" (domino theory), these people approved my assignments. They were prepared to tolerate a philistine within their midst, suppress their natural aversion to me and mark my opinions objectively. This, as I reflect, juxtaposes starkly the attitude or culture of the two institutions. One institution is prepared to tolerate alternative views. The other is not.

I advanced in the rank structure relatively quickly in the police and soon found myself incarcerated as supervisor in a control room; a job I loathed. So I did go to university and here, the first signs of light began to reappear. Slowly the mist began to abate and I saw things from a different perspective. In all, I did eleven years at either Auckland or Victoria universities. I am immensely grateful for how those institutions unwittingly help me exorcise the demon of excessive exposure to police culture.

This "culture" manifests in many different forms. Three recent examples will illustrate my point and demonstrate that it is as alive and well as it was in my day:

John Dewar. Recently incarcerated for, according to the view of the court, covering up for the despicable conduct of assistant commissioner Rickards and two other police officers. John Dewar was one of the best sergeants I ever had as an inspector, but the "culture" manifest in his destiny in a most tragic manner for him.

Then there was the police shooting of a man in Christchurch. The law is clear when a cop or civilian may kill another human being. One must fear, on reasonable grounds, death or grievous injury to oneself or a third person which cannot otherwise be prevented. In my view the circumstances of the killing are not as transparent as the police public relations section would have us believe. A man shot wielding a hammer on cars! Not dissimilar to a man shot wielding a golf club against shop windows.

The proper place to test the validity of police action is before a court. The strength of our police is public confidence and support; without which they are nothing. The best way to retain that public support is for transparency and that is best achieved by testing police actions in a court of law. Yet immediately after the killing we have the police association representative, completely out of line in my view, seeking to influence the outcome by claiming the shooting was justifiable and we should trust the police to judge their own actions. This of course is the manifestation once again of the police culture: look after the police. That is quite different, in my view, to looking after the rule of law.

Finally, there is the recent implementation of draconian anti-terror legislation to combat routine crimes and offences in the community. Police say they have collated information over a period of 12 months which on analysis leads them to the conclusion that there is a real threat to the stability and security of our country. The problem as I see it is, that information they have has been self assessed by the same people who collate the data or, at best, by the supervisor of the "intelligence unit" and his superior; all of whom view society from within the forest and with vested interests in producing an outcome which justifies the retention of their unit. These subjective conclusions are presented to judicial officers as the basis of justification for warrants and implementation of anti terror legislation which abrogate the most basic of our legal rights.

No longer are we protected from arbitrary detention without being charged and the legal requirement to be taken before a court as soon as possible. This I find unacceptable.

I am also disappointed that too many New Zealanders appear not to comprehend the significance of what it means to our legal structure when on the basis of subjective analysis by the police, these guardians substantially usurp the role of the judiciary as a check and balance against tyrannical tendencies. There is a fundamental flaw in the present legislation where it allows a subjective test of police information by police, to form the basis of reason to catapult us onto a terror alert footing. It is even more disturbing to me when I know type of environment where these decision are made, is deep in the forest. What the police are effectively saying is:

"In the Ureweras there are weapons of mass destruction. Trust us."

Sound familiar?

I have been in the forest. In the seventies I was a detective on the Regional Crime and Drug Squad. I was also on the AOS. My formal police assessments were high. "Excellent" as a detective. "Outstanding" as a commissioned officer. In my formative years my immediate supervisors included detective sergeant John Hughes, detective inspector Graham Perry and later detective inspector Bruce Hutton (Hutton was my boss on my first homicide: the Crewe murders). These men were legends in their own time, each of them relentless and with a determination of mind few could match. Together with half a dozen other young detectives, we formed a formidable unit; we became a legend in our own time.

Our adversaries were serious villains: Peter Fulcher, Mihaly Bede, Terry Clarke alias Mr Asia, the Saffiti boys and several gangs. This was a particularly violent time in the history of policing in New Zealand. We were right in the middle. It was inevitable that we, who consistently faced angry men in dark alleys, would have allegations made against us. I had my share against me.

There were allegations of excessive force; that I was aware of but did nothing about an offender alleged being dangled by his ankles from the fourth floor of the police station; perjury and even one of extracting a confession from a drug dealer by playing on him Russian Roulette with a police issue revolver. These allegations were of course outrageous untruths without foundation and never sustained.

In 1981 I was seconded to the police Red Escort Group - Red Squad. I later wrote a book about the exploits of the squad. That initiative catapulted me into the headlines for the first time. On the one hand, I believe it provided the impetus for me to gain selection for National as a Member of Parliament in a conservative seat. On other hand, because I later became an MP and had written the book, The Red Squad Story, I became synonymous with Red Squad and alone have endure the odium and contempt heaped upon that police unit, as the tide of public opinion turned.

My last job in the police was inspector in charge of special operations and a criminal intelligence section. At the time the focus was on the activities of Maori activists at Carrington hospital. I took raw police data and used it in my maiden speech. At the time I believed in the conclusions we as a police unit had peer reviewed. Some form of revolution or armed insurrection had been threatened. There were threats of "Kill a white, die a hero". Maori wanted political sovereignty. Maori activist Sid Jackson was one of several who had been to Libya. But did a contrary political view and aspirations really pose a threat to the security and stability of our country? History has provided the answer. There has been no revolution and at least one of the Maori activists of those times is now in Parliament working within the system.

I made a mistake when I took the raw police data and used in my maiden speech. It took another nine years in parliament, another three years at university and, as I do now, living in Eastern Europe where the legal protections and freedoms we take for granted often do not exist, for me to finally step out of the forest and see it for what it is.

I urge every New Zealander not to allow the state apparatus to take from you by default, legal rights people long before us fought for, died for. I urge every New Zealand to contact their Member of Parliament and express concern that the anti-terror legislation currently before parliament, be placed on "hold" until the true nature of the present police raids under the auspicious of terror legislation, is tested before the courts.

Is a delay of a few months too much to much to ask before we take the next step toward undermining the most significant legal document ever, which has endured since 1215?

The Magna Carta.

Ross Meurant, B.A. M.P.P.


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