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‘Fatally wounded at Waitara’

18 August 2000

Kia ora,

Having now read the police homicide enquiry report, ‘Steven James Wallace: Fatally Wounded at Waitara, Sunday 30 April 2000’, it seems that most of the questions asked in the first Peace Movement Aotearoa alert (The Shooting of Steven Wallace, 8 May 2000) remain unanswered.

We asked five initial questions in that alert: why did police officers decide to arm themselves with guns when Steven was obviously not carrying a firearm himself ? Why didn’t they choose another option to stop him - for example, by waiting for the dog unit which was apparently on its way from New Plymouth ? Why was Steven shot four times ? Why were local people who tried to offer him comfort and assistance as he lay bleeding and dying in the street for 20 minutes prevented by the police from going near him ? Why is this young man dead ?

Of these, the only one to which the answer is now clear is the third - it is apparently how police officers are trained to shoot. While it is evident from the report that Constable A (who shot Steven) believed he was acting in self-defence, it is not at all clear why such a ‘highly trained’ police officer found himself (or put himself) in a situation where he had ‘no choice’ in a street - hardly a confined area.

Of the longer term issues we raised in that alert, the report does not discuss racism in the police force. Nor it does cover the lack of public confidence in the ability of the Police Complaints Authority to deliver justice to those who have been wronged by any actions of police officers. It does however, by its total exoneration of the police officer who shot and killed Steven, strongly suggest that nothing of any substance will be done to prevent a similar situation occurring again in the future - after all, if this shooting is perceived by the police to be justified, then presumably they do not see any need to change their procedures and behaviour. The other longer term issue we raised in that first alert related to police officers access to guns and what they do with them once they have armed themselves. We pointed out that "The shooting again raises the likelihood that when police officers have access to guns, this acts in itself to deter them from thinking creatively about other options to deal with the situation". This analysis seems to be confirmed by various statements in the report - for example:

... "having made the decision he did to take his pistol from his holster and present it at Wallace, Constable A was committed from that point to using the firearm as his weapon of self-defence. The distance between himself and Wallace was at best 20 metres and closing quickly." (p179);

and "There may be some who might consider that Constables A and B could have ‘jumped’ or grappled with Wallace. That point of view would ignore the factors already discussed particularly the point that once the pair had drawn their firearms, they had no realistic opportunity even if they wished, to re-holster the pistols and select a less violent alternative means of self-defence." (p181)

There is a section in the report called "Was a Less Violent Option Available to Constable A". Oddly, the section on police dogs (the use of which may have prevented Steven’s death) has only six paragraphs. Despite the fact that a dog handler and dog were on their way and would have arrived within approximately ten minutes, the section concludes "Events very quickly overcame Constables A and B and moved far too quickly for them to effectively utilise the dog patrol." (p163). However, the question of why the officers chose to confront Steven, rather than wait for the canine unit to arrive, is not satisfactorily addressed.

The section on the use of capsicum spray is, in contrast, eight pages long, with great detail on operational use of this option. As there is general public awareness that capsicum spray is not necessarily an effective way of dealing with a person who is drunk or very upset, it is rather bizarre that this option is discussed at such length.

Then there is a two page section on the use of batons, which discusses whether or not batons could have been used effectively in this situation.

It established that expert advice was obtained "Enquiry has also been made with a number of Police Officers, each of whom became exceptionally skilled during the 1981 Springbok Tour in the use of the PR24 baton ..." and continues ... "one of these officers ... observed that it was unquestionably simpler to master the Glock pistol than it was to achieve the degree of competency to successfully confront a baseball bat wielding offender with a PR24 baton." (p 172).

We accept that the use of batons may not have been a safe option for the officers in this situation, but while it may be "simpler to master the Glock pistol", that does not necessarily make its use acceptable. There were other options - it was not simply a choice between batons and guns.

Reactions to the report

With regard to the range of reactions to this report, there are three in particular we wish to comment on:

a) The Dominion - on 17 August ran a half page article on ... "Wallace’s problems with alcohol and police that culminated in the tragedy." The article begins with the sentence "Police officers were like a red rag with a bull when Steven Wallace had been drinking", it goes on to list various incidents in which Steven had allegedly been involved in the past, and a chronology of the immediate events leading up to the shooting as per the homicide enquiry report. It gives the impression that Steven’s ... "disdain for the police and his propensity for violence" ... somehow makes his being killed okay.

Well, it seems to us that there are any amount of drunk angry young men (who may or may not have disdain for the police or a propensity for violence) to be found throughout this country on any night of the week, and if it is okay for the police to shoot them, then the streets are going to be littered with bodies.

b) We are appalled by the reaction of the following three politicians to the release of the report, who have used the death of a young man to try to score political points:

  • Tony Ryall (National) who said that the Prime Minister must immediately apologise to the police officer involved in the Waitara shooting, his family and the entire NZ police force for accusations of racism over the Waitara shooting ... "the NZ police deserve an apology for the unfounded, undermining statements the Prime Minister made in the aftermath of the shooting." (National Party Press release, 16 August);

  • Winston Peters (NZ First) who said that Helen Clark must be regretting her premature comments on the matter which ... "show a lack of judgment which reflect poorly on any leader". However, he did at least re-iterate his call for an independent body to replace the existing Police Complaints Authority. (NZ First press release, 16 August);

  • Ken Shirley (ACT NZ) who said ... "immediately after the incident on April 30, the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, acted precipitously, overrode her Police Minister, accusing the police in Taranaki of racism" ... "It is outrageous that the Prime Minister should have made such claims, and in the light of the findings of the extensive investigation into the Waitara incident, she should immediately and formally, apologise to the police, he said" (ACT NZ press release, 16 August).

On the other hand, Keith Locke (Green Party) issued a press release criticising the police report and and calling for a full public inquiry into the shooting to address all the concerns that have been raised (Green Party press release, 16 August).

c) We find the reaction of the Police Association to be particularly interesting and ominous - an IRN News report (17 August) begins "The Police Association says any legal action taken over the death of Steven Wallace will have no impact on the way police handle such incidents" and ends ...

"Police Association President Greg O’Connor says the family should think twice if they think legal action will have any impact on police procedures". Well, that quote pretty much sums the situation up - we had, until we read this, had the misguided belief that police procedures should be within ‘the law’.

What next ?

We should point out that the report is exceedingly detailed, and an alert of this length could not summarise its entire contents. However, although it contains a lot of detail, it leaves too many basic questions unanswered. The report could have been a step towards justice, but it is not.

In the coming weeks (or months, the schedule for this has not yet been confirmed) there will be two further official reports released - one from the Police Complaints Authority; and the Coroner’s Report. It is our sincere hope that these reports will deliver justice for Steven’s family and friends; and that they will at least begin to restore public confidence both in the future conduct of police officers, and in the certainty that those who have been wronged by the actions of police officers will not be left with their loss and grief unresolved.

What you can do

a) Take the time to write a note of sympathy and support to Steven’s family - let them know they are not alone with their grief and longing for justice. You can post them to the Wallace Whänau, 80 Broadway, Waitara 4320.

b) Support the Steven Wallace Independent Enquiry Fund - the fund was established to help with legal costs and expenses incurred by Steven’s family (including those arising from their private independent investigation into the police actions which resulted in Steven’s death), and to campaign for possible changes to the law and to police procedures. If you wish to make a contribution to the fund, please refer to the updated details on this page.

c) Continue to contact your MP to demand an independent enquiry - in addition to your own MP you could contact the following: George Hawkins as Minister of Police, office - tel (04) 470 6563, fax (04) 495 8464; Phil Goff as Minister of Justice, office - tel (04) 471 9370, fax (04) 495 8444; Nandor Tanczos as Green Party Justice Spokesperson, office - tel (04) 470 6712, fax (04) 472 7116; Helen Clark as Prime Minister, office - tel (04) 471 9998, fax (04) 473 3579; and Jim Anderton as Deputy Prime Minister, office - tel (04) 471 9011, fax (04) 495 8441. You can write to any or all of the above at Parliament Buildings, Wellington (no stamp required).

d) Follow the mass media coverage of the investigation, and the report/s, and write to the relevant newspaper, radio programme or TV programme if you do not feel their coverage is satisfactory or fair.

e) Use the opportunity to make submissions on the Police Complaint Authority Review which is currently underway - some time next week we will send out an alert with the terms of reference of the Review and how you can make submissions to it.

"This is not just a Waitara tragedy, it was a national tragedy and one we must never allow to occur again." (from the Wallace Whänau Committee statement, June 2000)

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