Are the police losing our trust? A bit, and here's why

Thousands of New Zealanders voted this week that the police were losing their trust. Could it be because the police behave as if they're the pope? (And not in the 'without sin' sense)

I've gotta say I was a bit surprised. On The Vote this week, 56 percent of our voting viewers said the police were losing our trust, with 44 percent siding against the moot. I'd expected those numbers to be round the other way and I'd suggest it tells those at police national HQ – once memorably called "bullshit castle" – that they've got some work to do to earn back that trust.

Let's say from the outset that the police have one hell of a job to do. I wouldn't want to do it, I wouldn't want my sons to do it. I admire those who can don the uniform and retain an ethos of service and compassion. Most do. But some don't and the police haven't yet figured out how to deal with those bad eggs in a manner sufficient to maintain the public's faith in the force.

I say "sufficient" because I suspect a more scientific poll would find majority support for the police. With a TV poll, those who are most in favour of the moot are most motivated to vote. The police's own survey has public support at 80 percent – but that counts those who have complete or "quite a lot" of trust in the police. That covers a myriad of sins; you can be losing faith but still have "quite a lot" of trust in something. But by and large, I think most people don't see too much wrong with our police. And by and large I'd agree.

However I don't think the police can rest on any perceived laurels. While the top cops will likely dismiss the debate as a nonsense and ignore the thousands of people who expressed doubt in the institution, the truth is that their relationship with the public has been dented on two fronts.

The first is through their handling of the big cases. The New Zealand Police were assumed to be good and noble by most until the Arthur Allan Thomas case in the 1970s and the Springbok Tour in 1981. Suddenly, we saw another side of them. They could be corrupt and they could be against us. Concerns about police culture skyrocketed with the Louise Nicholas case and the Bazley Commission of Inquiry. A culture of sexism and bullying was exposed and while improvements have undoubtedly been made, they've been on a pretty dodgy run ever since.

Whatever you think about the guilt of people such as David Bain and Mark Lundy, for example, there are serious questions about the quality of the police work involved. Operation 8 was a mess of paranoia and over-reach. The Dotcom raid? Another bad call.

Second, for all the concerns raised by those high-profile events, I think most people's view of the police comes down to personal interaction, or otherwise. Most New Zealanders have little do to with them. Maybe the odd speeding ticket (fair cop), a friendly nod outside a rugby game or at worst a visit when you've been burgled. That latter experience isn't the vote winner it used to be for police, given that the low burglary resolution rate of just 12 percent (it's been low for many years) has now been joined by a slow attendence rate. Police mostly come round within two days of a burglary, but that hardly screams urgency or respect at a time when people need them most. So it's hardly surprising thay people should lose respect in return.

Having said that, the contact is mostly positive and comes when the police are seen to be on your side. For example, the work of youth aid officers these days is light years ahead of where it was a generation ago.

But for many New Zealanders that positivity doesn't ring true. As The Vote went to air on Wednesday night, several viewers tweeted that they'd lost faith in the police when they were detained wrongly by police, or punched or abused. As a reporter in small town New Zealand I've seen those bully-boy cops who think they run the town like some Wild West sherrif.

Researching for The Vote every Maori I spoke to recalled times they, their families or friends had been stopped unnecessarily, harrassed or treated differently from a middle-class pakeha.

So when Commissioner Peter Marshall denies institutional racism in his force, it simply jars with reality. To claim all is hunky-dory sounds either silly, or downright dishonest.

And this is the lesson I hope the police might take from this debate – it's OK to say you're wrong sometimes.

It seems the most entrenched institutional flaw in the police culture is an unwillingness to accept blame. There's a culture of denial that simply won't seem to scrub off. And it's causing people to lose faith.

As Duncan Garner pointed out on the programme, you don't need widespread corruption for people to start losing faith. A few bad apples can spoil the whole bunch; you only need a handful of bad cops and the sense that they're getting away with it for people to lose confidence in the whole institution.

A good part of any culture is that of camaraderie, the sense that those around you have your back. It's especially vital in organisations where personal safety is at risk, such as the military or police. But if that extends to covering up another's mistakes and not owning failure, it's gone too far. And when the police refuse to admit fault time and time again, it simply looks like arse-covering and an unwillingness to learn and improve. Everyone knows no organisation is perfect, we accept that. What we don't accept is people pretending they're perfect when they're not. The police do not have to claim papal infallability to earn our trust. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Admit a few mistakes and we'll trust you more.

That's why people were so outraged at Deputy Commissioner Mike Bush when he attended the funeral of Bruce Hutton – the cop who planted evidence to convict Arthur Allan Thomas – and read from his file that "his integrity is beyond reproach".

And that's why it was refreshing to see Police Association President Greg O'Connor on The Vote admit that Central District Commander Russell Gibson's letter in which he said a 10 year-old rape victim was "willing" was "totally unacceptable" and "he will be dealt with". While some were outraged by O'Connor I thought he got the answer just about right. He said Gibson's offensive words would be "severely career limiting" and that police officers nationwide were horrified. But he also said a single mistake in a 30 year career – even a mistake that serious – should not mean instant dismissal. And that's quite right. We all make mistakes. And only a thorough investigation can determine whether this was one that warrants dismissal or just discipline.

The point is that O'Connor's strong words should have come, in some form, from the commissioner and they should have come a week earlier, when the news broke. Again, the perception was that the police will cover up for each other and the bosses will make excuses in the hope it'll all blow over. That's not good enough.

The police speak about a zero tolerance for crime and how important that is to our wider culture. The same zero tolerance within their own ranks would go a long way to re-establishing the trust lost by a few bad eggs and a thus far unrepentant culture of denial.