Tuesday, 07 Aug 2007

Probe into shooting highlights control lack

LYN HUMPHREYS lyn.humphreys@tnl.co.nz - Taranaki | Saturday, 4 August 2007
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New Plymouth's police chief has come in for criticism for lack of leadership on the night Steven Wallace was shot and killed.

Mr Wallace died in Taranaki Base Hospital on April 30, 2000, after he was shot by Senior Constable Keith Abbott.

Last night, Coroner Gordon Matenga released his findings in the wake of an inquest 22 months ago.

In his 15-page report, limited to general police staff dealing with violent offenders and first aid care, Mr Matenga says that there were difficulties with the command structure on the night.

Sergeant Fiona Prestidge (now an inspector and New Plymouth's area commander), who was the officer in charge on the night, could have done more, his report said.

"In my view (she) should have exhibited more leadership and control.

"This could have been done with two simple inquiries, such as ... `are you sure firearms are needed?' and `what are you planning to do?"'

And Mr Abbott, as the most senior of the three constables at the scene, could have done more to exert his leadership.

The officers at the scene should have discussed the situation, as to whether they would cordon and contain the scene, or make a voice appeal.

"The officers had different views as to how the matter should be dealt with.

"These matters boil down to a lack of leadership shown at the scene."

However he did not make any recommendations into the command issues, saying these were performance issues.

Last night Police Association lawyer Susan Hughes QC, who represented Mr Abbott at the High Court private prosecution for murder after which he was acquitted, hit back at the report.

She said that it was easy to make comments from the safety of an office and with the benefit of hindsight.

"The coroner is talking with a counsel of perfection that doesn't reflect the reality and unpredictability of policing in a town like Waitara in the early hours of the morning."

Mrs Prestidge declined to comment, directing the paper to Central District Commander, Inspector Mark Lammas.

He echoed Mrs Hughes' remarks, saying he and Police Commissioner Howard Broad were fully supportive of all the police officers on that night.

"They were dealing with a critical incident and they had to make almost instantaneous decision.

"I believe they applied themselves as best they could in a very difficult situation."

Mr Matenga's sole recommendation is that police review the police dog deployment guidelines so that general staff are aware when to call out a team.

Police guidelines discussed how dogs should be used but gave no guidance at all to general staff as to when dogs should be used, he said, pointing out there was room for improvement.

For the Wallace family, lawyer Ron Mansfield, of Auckland, said he was very pleased with the findings, given the limited scope of the inquest.

"We want to make sure police review what happened."

A lot of the pain and misery that followed could have been avoided if inquests were held soon after an incident.

Recommendations could decide whether there was any criminal liability to be followed up and families would know what had happened and, with any other recommendations, also feel their family member did not die in vain.

Mr Matenga apologised for the findings' delay saying it was largely because of juggling a part-time judicial role and a busy trial schedule.

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