I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Greg

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The Herald reports that Police Association President Greg O’Connor is calling on the judiciary to start convicting people for insulting police to help counter a culture of disrespect. According to Mr O’Connor, such disrespect leads to assaults on police officers. Apparently yelling “bugger off” to a cop is OK but if one yells “f*ck off pigs”, the police should arrest you and charge you with insulting behaviour.

Where to start?

First, where is the evidence for the claim that a “culture of disrespect for the law leads to assaults on officers”? Many professions are held in low regard by the public, used car salesmen to use a cliched example, but people don’t generally go around assaulting them. There might be more assaults taking place against the police but in the absence of evidence of causation, I’m skeptical that a lack of respect for the police is the cause of this.

Second, it seems to me that Mr O’Connor confuses “respect for the law” with the fear of being arbitrarily arrested for using colourful language in bars. Respect is earned through the way the police conduct themselves when they carry out their admittedly difficult duties. It is not enforced through the threat of arrest. If the threat of being arrested for insulting the police leads to respect for the law and police officers, such respect must have been high indeed in the former Soviet states.

Third, Mr O’Connor seems to think that it is appropriate for the police to tell judges how cases should be decided:

He is in discussions with Police Commissioner Howard Broad to approach the judiciary with a strategic plan to improve respect for the law.

“It requires District Court judges to agree – in copybook cases – that they will convict people who are arrested for insulting behaviour.”

Perhaps the rate of convictions for this type of offending is low because the Supreme Court has said that the provisions in question raise free speech questions. And perhaps Mr O’Connor would like to reflect on the separation of powers and the appropriateness of part of the executive branch of government telling the judiciary how to decide cases.

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7 Responses to “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Greg”

  1. Toby Says:

    I’m with Thomas J: “I therefore consider that [an accused’s] exercise of his right to freedom of expression in the circumstances of [any case where the accused’s has exercised that right to shout “f*ck off pig” at a police officer legitimately attempting to uphold the law] does not attract conspicuous value in serving any of the recognised theories or bases upon which the right to freedom of expression is based.” Brooker, at 251.

  2. Jonathan Says:

    Toby, the problem I have with O’Connor’s comments is that it seems to me that he is suggesting that the manner in which one questions authority or expresses hostility to the police can attract criminal punishment. I don’t think it could seriously be suggested that we should criminalise the citizen who says to a police officer: “You don’t have any power to detain me, leave me alone.” “F*ck off pigs” may simply be a more colourful way of putting the same point.

    Of course irrespective of the language used, the behaviour of a person challenging police authority may well become disorderly and deserving of punishment, for example impeding the lawful execution of a police officer’s duties. I can see why we would want to punish that sort of behaviour, but I don’t see the case for punishing and prosecuting swearing because it shows a lack of respect.

  3. Colin Hunter Says:

    Jonathon,

    I basically agree with you, but I think there is a point worth considering. One of the main reasons why I think O’connor’s point is so unconvincing is a lack of evidence. If he could show for example that (1) assaults against police were on the rise and (2) there was significant and compelling evidence that making it an offence to swear at a police offer would reduce that violence, I think he might have a point, but we all know this is highly unlikey. Still if I see the compelling evidence, who know… I think as I’m sure you are aware O’connor is likely just trying to express the frustrations of his members in a public forum, regardless of the real truth or rationality there.

  4. Toby Says:

    Good points both. My replies:

    Jono – I think O’Connor’s suggestion would be reasonable if he proposed a summary offence akin to that you link to above. The fine for insulting a police officer if framed in that way would be comparatively very small. Cf North Shore District Council’s recently securing of $7,500 fine for an individual’s wrongful felling of a protected tree, or Porirua City Council’s allowing $4000 to be imposed for letting your dog excrete on the pavement (they can also take your dog, btw). In comparison, $1000 for the offence O’Connor has in mind would seem appropriate, although I agree arrest is over the top.

    Regarding the proposed law’s purpose however, – As per my post above I disagree that personally directed invective should be a permissible way of stating an easily otherwise-expressible point. Just as some would disagree that hitting children is an acceptably “more colourful” way of exercising your right to discipline them, and most would say that spousal abuse is not an acceptable way of “putting the same point” across as a person might by using words rather than their fists to denote their opinion that their partner shouldn’t have left the baby home alone and gone to the pub..

    Regarding your second point above, I agree that “Respect is earned through the way the police conduct themselves when they carry out their admittedly difficult duties”, but I think you give insufficient credit to the suggestion that sanctions might be required to maintain it (especially when there are those who didn’t and never would give the police such respect, simply and especially because they are the “po-lice”..). As to “If the threat of being arrested for insulting the police leads to respect for the law and police officers, such respect must have been high indeed in the former Soviet states” – lol, but facile too my friend. The proposed offence is to preserve respect (earned in the way you suggest), not to create it..

    Colin – If you grant O’Conor the credence of having listened to his officers and of now attempting to act in accordance with what he has heard, then you’ll need to acknowledge that some (real) evidence must exist. It is only his reaction (ie, his proposed law as a solution) that could be irrational. And as to that – Have you ever seen someone egged on to start a fight? or a group psych one or more of its members into giving a real sh*t-kicking to someone who might stand a chance against one person but couldn’t defend themselves from any of the many who might choose to attack them?

    And at the end of the day, it’s the police we ask, for legitimate purposes, to confront and to control such people, often alone, unarmed, and for the greater good. Providing them an additional measure of protection may very well be a deserved concomitant.

  5. Jonathan Says:

    Toby, taking your points in turn (numbers correspond to your paragraphs):

    1. Presumably the police could prosecute under the existing summary offences but I guess this runs into Brooker. Putting that point to one side, why do you think the level of the fine changes things?

    2. I don’t see how the examples you raise are analogous. The only difference between saying “You don’t have any power to detain me, leave me alone” and “F*ck off pigs” is the content of the speech. Using violence against your partner as opposed to discussing an issue is totally different – one involves the use of physical violence against another individual, the other discourse.

    The fact that a point is “easily otherwise-expressible” is, to my mind, beside the point. Freedom of speech allows the speaker to choose how to convey the message. On your rationale all manner of speech could be regulated on the basis that the point could be made in a different manner or in a different medium which the state found more acceptable.

    3. I don’t see how using an offence in order to maintain respect as opposed to earning it effects the point.

    4. I am sure that O’Connor has listened to his officers. However, the fact that officers think (a) assaults are on the rise and (b) making it an offence to insult police officers would reduce that violence is only very weak evidence of (a) and doesn’t prove (b) at all. I don’t think that (b) is true but that doesn’t mean it is not. Hence why I’d like to see some evidence to back up O’Connor’s claims.

    5. I’m not at all opposed to providing the police with protection where their safety is a risk. If O’Connor’s case is based on safety I want to see some evidence that safety would be improved. What I am opposed to is prosecuting people for swearing at the police just because it annoys or frustrates them. No one, including the police, has a general right to insist the other people don’t do or say things that annoy or frustrate them.

  6. Toby Says:

    1. Obviously sanctions should match offences. Your posts have made much of the possibility that O’Connor’s proposed offence would “criminalise”, lead to judges “convicting people”, or amount to “criminal punishment”. You raise this rightly – those punishments are what O’Connor seems to suggest. However I also take your repeated references as suggesting that his proposal is flawed because criminalisation would be disproportionate to the gravity of the harm. That raises the question: is the flaw to your mind that O’Connor’s suggested penalty is disproportionate, or that he has proposed that there be an offence at all? And if the former, at what stage might you think proportionality might be achieved? This is where the possibility of punishing by a small fine rather than arrest is relevant. Unless you think verbally abusing a police officer in a way which distracts or impedes them in the course of their attempting to uphold the law shouldn’t ever be more culpable than say, letting your dog shit on public lawn. Which leads us to the remaining points..

    2. Yes, an obvious distinction. However the law frequently draws equally obvious distinctions within the range of verbal utterances. Some statements are harmless, some are defamatory, some are capable of amounting to an intentional infliction of emotional distress, some are punishable as hate speech or incitement, etc. My examples were intended to demonstrate that people being “more colourful” and “putting [a] point” across in the wrong way can result in a permissible expression taking an impermissible mode of expression (here’s where Brooker comes in) – in short, to adopt your wording, that “all manner of speech [IS] regulated on the basis that the point could be made in a different manner or in a different medium which the state found more acceptable.”

    If you were to look to challenge the analogies just listed on the basis of their differences to the present rather than their similarities, you might say most are examples of private law infringements not public, where what O’Connor is obviously seeking to protect is a public good, not a private one. Point well made (if you were about to make it) but I’d submit the force of the analogies remains – citizens only have rights (against other citizens OR the government) subject to limits which at times will be placed not merely upon the ends to but also the means by which they exercise them.

    3. Respect may be well earned in the way you suggest it should (I agree with you that it should be earned in this way). O’Connor’s proposal is to introduce an offence to prevent its being lessened in those who hold it, by acts of disrespect on the part of those who probably never did hold it. Sanctions intended to uphold respect in the law maintain respect for the law, which deserves respect for being the law (and thus one would hope, good law), not for the sake of its being able to impose sanctions. Your comparison to totalitarianism confuses might with right (ie, authority, with that which is deserving of respect) and ignores the fact that right sometimes needs might to prevail (ie, that that which is deserving of respect sometimes needs authority to ensure it is respected). If an example would help, I refer you again to the rules of civil contempt.. As to how this affects your point, I believe you are wrong to say that respect for the law “is not enforced through the threat of arrest.” We would seem to agree how respect for the law is or should be earned, but if not through sanction how do you say it should enforced?

    4. I don’t understand the propositions you set out here so I don’t comment on them. I restrict myself to noting that your used-car salesmen syllogism (‘if a lack of respect caused assaults, then u.c.s.m. would be assaulted’, ‘u.c.s.m. are not assaulted’, ‘therefore a lack of respect does not cause assaults” (or more formally: ‘a -> b’, ‘~ b’, ‘tf, ~a’)) is valid (it’s called “modus tollens” or denying the consequent) but sound only if you accept that a lack of respect is _by itself_ sufficient to cause assaults (which is your first proposition) – which is just not the case.. To make this point another way – do you think the lack of assaults on used car salesmen (disrepected though they may be) has anything to do with the fact that they aren’t routinely required to coerce the criminally violent..?

    5. I can’t help but think you’re missing the point. You seem to be looking at this as those civilians who happen to have a certain job attempting to usurp to themselves greater rights than the rest of us when the police, in the sense that we’re talking about them, aren’t. merely. people. – Rather, they are the interface between the rules which govern society and those parts of society who most need governing (and which most of us probably want nothing to do with). The proposed law isn’t intended to grant officers special rights in their personal capacities or outside of their function, any more than the council bylaws I referred to above are intended to allow those council officers who are particularly adverse to dog fouling or sensitive to tree preservation to impose their personal sense of “right” upon the public. You are uncharitable to suggest the proposed law would be invoked because an officer was “annoyed”. To the extent there is truth in your suggestion the law would be invoked because an officer was “frustrated”, we’re talking about an instance in which it would be the administration of justice, the maintenance of civil order, and/or the effective implementation of laws (the vast majority of which I assume you take no issue with) that were been ‘frustrated’.

    If you think there’s nothing wrong with a person’s being able to malign, abuse, deride and intimidate police officers trying to do a job we badly need them to, where such might well be a precursor to violence being inflicted upon them, then I can see how you arrive at your views.

    Personally I think that’s a bit off, and an appropriate legisaltive measure, reasonably applied by the Courts, could be fair.

  7. Toby Says:

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10718673

    Anti-police song lands Tiki Taane in court
    By James Ihaka
    5:30 AM Tuesday Apr 12, 2011

    Singer Tiki Taane is to appear in court after he allegedly sang the rap anthem F*** the Police at a Tauranga nightclub while officers were conducting an inspection.

    Taane, 34, a former member of Salmonella Dub, spent a few hours in the cells at Tauranga police station early on Sunday after his altercation with the police at the Illuminati nightclub, where he was master of ceremonies for DJ Dick Johnson.

    He is charged with disorderly behaviour likely to cause violence.

    The Sunlive.co.nz website reported that people at the gig said Taane began singing the song as officers carried out a routine inspection.

    “When they approached him afterwards things got out of hand,” said a person who did not want to be named.

    Yesterday Taane’s manager and sister Nina Kaye could not confirm if he had sung the song from the 1988 NWA album Straight Outta Compton.

    “I wasn’t there so I can’t say and that’s the end of that, but I know that Tiki has sung that song in the last 15 years of his career.

    “We grew up in Christchurch and were right into Public Enemy and NWA when we were kids and we used to sing it all the time.

    “I guess it was a bit of a favourite for him which he took into the performance arena.”

    A man who asked not to be named said his friend, a bar manager, was arrested with Taane as he tried to intervene. He was charged with obstruction and resisting arrest.

    The man believed it was “possibly a poor song choice” but the police response was an over-reaction.

    “I think more than anything the crowd just got involved with the song and not the police,” he said.

    “We’ve had sets before and played Bad Boys when the police came in but at least some had a sense of humour about it.”

    The acting area commander for Western Bay of Plenty, Inspector Karl Wright-St Clair, said police had visited the tavern in the Tauranga CBD earlier that night as part of their regular pub checks.

    As a result of an incident while they were at the tavern, they returned after the bar closed at 3am to speak to staff and entertainers.

    Ms Kaye said Taane was released from custody on bail on Sunday morning. He met his lawyer yesterday afternoon.

    She did not know how he would plead in court on Friday.

    “Tiki has always been a good boy, he’s never gotten in trouble before so it’s a bit of a shock. To be honest, I don’t think he did anything wrong … there are worse crimes in the world.”

    On Facebook, Tiki Taane Tikidub Productions yesterday posted that “freedom of speech is a human right” and “all our love and thorts are with everyone who attended the Tauranga gig last nite and in particular those who were present early hours this morning … we sincerely hope you are all ok …”

    The “Tikidub Whanau” encouraged fans to send an email if they needed “anything in relation to what occurred”.

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