3 Apr 2017

'They're not tolerating bad behaviour any more'

7:55 am on 3 April 2017

A decade of independent scrutiny of how police treat sexual assault victims and how they investigate their own officers is about to end.

Ten years ago today a Commission of Inquiry led by Dame Margaret Bazley released a scathing report describing disgraceful conduct by officers over 25 years and a wall of silence protecting the men that women complained about.

The high profile case of Louise Nicholas, who accused four police officers of rape, prompted the Commission of Inquiry to be established in 2004.

The inquiry investigated historic sexual assault claims and misconduct from 1979 to 2004.

In 2007, Dame Margaret released her findings which pointed to systemic issues, evidence of disgraceful misconduct and a culture of scepticism around reported sexual assaults.

The inquiry made 60 recommendations: 47 to the police, 21 to its watchdog the Independent Police Conduct Authority and one to the government.

The Office of the Auditor-General has reported on progress every few years and the last of those reports will be this year.

Louise Nicholas vividly remembers how fearful she was, the day her story was made public on 31 January 2004.

Louise Nicholas

Louise Nicholas Photo: Facebook

"In talking with [journalist] Phil Kitchin, in putting the story out there publicly, 'What am I going to get out of it?'

"And he said, 'What do you want?' And I said, 'I need for the police to acknowledge, to stand up and say, 'Yeah, we've got a really, really bad culture and we need to do something about this.' And Phil said, 'Well, let's call for a Commission of Inquiry' ... and that's how it all got started.

"And then, as fate has it, police decided to investigate my allegations that came through the media."

She said the investigation was important in enabling victims to come forward.

"The results were of course, acquittals. But, did I get my justice? As I sit here today, abso-bloody-lutely I did.

Mrs Nicholas said how police dealt with sexual assault survivors was the biggest change she wanted to see happen.

"It was really, really important that they started to understand that people don't make up this type of thing. There's a reason they have come to you, they have been harmed. And, they need the assurance from the police that there will be a full and thorough investigation."

She said the reassurance she got after Operation Austin, the police investigation into her allegations against four officers, was a turning point in restoring her trust in the police and not hating them.

'Huge cultural shift' in police

Dame Margaret said it quickly became clear in her inquiry that police did not have the systems in place to manage some of the behaviour that was happening.

"The Commissioner wasn't always aware of what was happening out in the regions and there had been a culture of tending not to deal with things. But that has all changed."

She said there had been a huge cultural shift in the police.

"There's the observing public that take note of this.. and if they were aware of this sort of thing now.. they would be blowing the whistle very smartly I believe.

"I don't think communities would tolerate that sort of behaviour today."

Dame Margaret said more women being employed by the police and into top jobs showed just how far the force had come.

"If I'm ever with women police, I always talk to them about how they're getting on. And they are very happy with the way they're able to progress in the organisation and how concerns are dealt with."

The inquiry reviewed 313 complaints of sexual assaults against 222 police officers between 1979 and 2005.

Charges were laid in relation to 141 of those complaints.

As a result, 10 police officers or former officers were convicted of sexual assault, 20 accused were cleared and two officers took their own lives before their cases could be heard.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush

Mike Bush says police are a victim-focused organisation Photo: RNZ

Mike Bush, the third Police Commissioner since 2007, said the inquiry acted as a catalyst for reform.

"We're now a very, very victim-focused organisation. We're focused on being very high performing and we have excellent values that sit as the foundation of the New Zealand Police."

He said the public could have confidence that complaints would be dealt with appropriately.

"If there are any complaints made, in regards to sexual complaints, whether it's involving our staff or others, we act with absolute urgency, absolute transparency and absolute professionalism with the victim at the heart of everything we do."

Independent Police Conduct Authority chair Judge Sir David Carruthers said in a statement that it appeared the police had taken the recommendations very seriously.

"There is no doubt the genuine efforts that have been made to achieve the progress which has been reported."

Louise Nicholas said if her case had happened today, it would have been handled so much better by police.

"I've actually seen the change in how police are investigating their own. They're not tolerating bad behaviour any more. We've got coppers out there on the front line actually stepping up and saying, 'I'm not going to tolerate your behaviour', and actually are speaking out. That's huge."

She said in recent years, she had dealt with a number of women who had been alleged victims of rape by police staff.

Many of those women got the justice they wanted, with their offenders being convicted and jailed, Mrs Nicholas said.

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