What in gods name has happened to my sweet godzone in the two years I’ve been away? The dark side, the same dark side that used to be the exclusive domain of our artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers and musicians, seems to have bumped itself well and truly into the mainstream.
I leave the blogs for a few days and come back to extended threads about cops watching chicken fucking movies (about the time said cops were getting ready to truncheon a few of us up and down New Zealand it must be said), more murder and mayhem on the front pages of the dailies, and I scratch my head. And then there seems to be a perverse interest in the jersey of an arraigned (but no longer convicted – but also not adjured not guilty it must be said, and I was less uncomfortable with that conviction than several others, but so be it) mass killer.
This is not the nation we sell to the world. The simple fact is that New Zealand is very clean and green. It’s both cleaner and greener than any other place I’ve been, visited or lived in my years, so that part of the pitch does ring true. That aside, it’s also a dark, very violent, increasingly uncomfortable place with more than a few issues, some of which seem to have brewed long enough to be festering to the surface. I worked long enough in the hospitality and entertainment industries to have had my fill of the rugby, alcohol and drug (including pot) fuelled culture of acceptable social force, that seems to be the norm.
But slowly, in its only funny way, I think New Zealand is coming to terms with all this. As a society, it is slowly maturing. The population seems to have reached a cosmopolitan mass, Auckland could almost be deemed a city in global terms – we are almost grown up.
I wondered how long it would be before the attention shifted to our boys in blue, as it should. One of our national myths surrounds our Police force. Their reputation, in the massed public mind, has always been one of an incorruptible force working for the public good. And largely, it’s true. I’ve worked with and encountered many hundreds of policemen and policewomen over the past decades, working with bands, in charitable situations, answering calls, and, repeatedly, as the owner of several licensed establishments.
Overwhelmingly my experiences have been positive, and I’ve laughed and chatted with many a constable on the beat, or sergeant checking the street, at 2am. And I have had detectives as friends over the years. I went through an attempted extortion many years ago, and the police handled it well, albeit at the edge of their powers, but any other way of dealing with it may well have had a less positive outcome.
But despite all that, I’ve repeatedly encountered an unchecked brutality and arrogance that has existed right in the middle of the police culture and has, not only been unchallenged but at times been encouraged.
Any of us out and about in the mid seventies and early eighties in Auckland will well remember the notorious Team Policing Units, created by the late Gideon Taite. The English have a term for the gang invasion of a tube train, where a bunch of thugs will enter a train at one station, and rampage and rob, only to leave at the next. It’s called Steaming, and the word is appropriate for the way the police would approach licensed venues, and steam through, inciting, and arresting, with batons – as often as not – out. We all saw it. I attempted to intervene at the old Kiwi Hotel about 1980, when an old Polynesian guy was being kicked and batoned for being slow to answer a question, after having been pushed off his stool by a young policeman. He also spoke little English. I received a baton in the stomach for my trouble. At least half a dozen innocents were arrested, in what had, prior to their arrival, been a happy and convivial atmosphere.
My sister, who is not the sort to make a fuss (and may even be a National party voter, I don’t know) still tells horrifying stories of her years on the door of the Windsor Castle, of repeated and unnecessary police brutality and provocation.
The police used to arrive at clubs in the early eighties, and for no real reason, drag half the clientele out on the street for body searches and likely arrest. My flatmate suffered a broken foot from a boot when he was not clear enough in his response to a question. After he was released three hours later we went to a&e and, the next day tried to file a complaint to no avail.
I lived with it again through the years that I owned clubs. The brutality aspect had toned down somewhat, at least inside the venues, but the culture of arrogance was alive and well. The policing units, arriving as they did, on a regular basis were always rude, overwhelming in numbers in a peaceful, even exuberant atmosphere, very pushy (both verbally and physically) and generally unnecessarily unpleasant. Not only looking for trouble but actively wanting to engineer it.
I recent years I’ve not had many one-on-one dealings with the police, aside from an attempted burglary (they were very good), a car theft (they didn’t care and were rude), and when they arrested a client of mine on an assault charge (they lied, were rude and seemed more interested in his celebrity status), but I can’t help but feel that the culture of arrogance and thuggery which was an acceptable part of the New Zealand Police Force has yet to be properly excised.
This all feels strange, residing as I do right now, in a nation emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, with a police force that still can’t quite decide which side of the divide it sits on (and is plagued by endemic corruption) but the thing is, the force here has had less than a decade to work through these issues – it has only been a civilian authority for some seven years, whereas the NZP have had a century and a half of non-authoritarian rule in an affluent and democratic society, to develop and grow, but are still having these problems, and they seem strangely reluctant to come to terms with them.
That is no longer acceptable.