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Police reaction angers Wallace family

By LOIS WATSON - Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 5 August 2007
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Police rejection of a coroner's report criticising their actions in fatally shooting a young Waitara man has left the dead man's family angry and disappointed.

Commissioner Howard Broad has dismissed Hamilton coroner Gordon Matenga's criticisms of his three officers, involved in the April 30, 2000, shooting of 23-year-old Steven Wallace.

Wallace was shot and killed after using a softball bat and golf club to smash shop windows in Waitara.

Matenga's report, released on Friday after a two-year wait, said the three officers involved in the incident - Senior Constable Keith Abbott, Constable Jason Dombroski and Sergeant Fiona Prestidge - erred in their decision-making and suffered from a lack of leadership.

Wallace died after Abbott, believing himself in "grave danger", shot him twice.

However, Broad said: "I have nothing but praise for all the officers involved..."

His comments have angered the Wallace family, who claim the police have shown them a complete lack of compassion and an inability to accept responsibility for their son's violent death.

"This death was totally avoidable," said the family's lawyer Ron Mansfield. "I'm not suggesting the police officer wasn't acting in self-defence... but mistakes were made right from the start that resulted in the officer being placed in that position."

Mansfield said the family was disappointed but not surprised police had reacted as they had to the coroner's report. They were now awaiting the Police Complaints Authority report into the shooting before deciding whether to pursue their case further.

"The family are very hopeful it won't be another example of police being unable to review their own conduct objectively ... but the police reaction to date doesn't give them any confidence at all."

The Wallace family took the unusual step of taking a private murder prosecution against Abbott but a High Court jury found the level of force he used was justified.

Broad said that while the coroner had a right to give his view on the command and leadership actions of the police staff involved, he held a different view.

"Our staff made their operational decisions based on the best information available to them and without the luxury of time; the rest of us have had to replay the events over and over again.

"If individuals present a deadly threat to my staff then I don't expect those officers to lay down their lives simply because they may fear the process of accountability that follows."

Broad said he had no intention of taking action against the staff involved in the shooting, all of whom were still serving officers.

Prestidge, who was supervisor on duty on the night of the shooting, is now the New Plymouth area commander.

"I commend them for their professionalism and dedication and I hope that they will continue in their careers for many years to come," Broad said.

He hoped the authority report would follow quickly so the official chapter could be closed on what he described as an "unfortunate episode" in New Zealand's history.

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