RoastBusters, resilience and the reappearance of Bullshit Castle

The Roastbusters club has again exposed police failings when it comes to sexual assaults. Sadly, that's hardly news and the police response to the revelations shows why

Power. And its misuse. It's what rape is all about and this week that's been apparent for all to see. Teenage boys in west Auckland have presented themselves online, in videos, and presumably around their neighbourhoods, as strutting powerbrokers on their patch by dint of their ability to bully young girls into sex. Which is why police handling of such crimes is so vital, and their response to the RoastBusters so appalling.

Since the weekend we've seen daily reports about a group of teenage boys calling themselves 'RoastBusters' and the group sex parties they've held in which girls as young as 13 were plied with alcohol and raped. The initial public reaction was horror that nothing had been done despite the boys bragging about their exploits online. The police, reasonably enough it seemed, day after day have said they could do little unless a girl was "brave enough" to make a complaint. They urged the girls involved to reconsider and come forward.

There were angry cries from the public for the police to do something, but I had sympathy for them; rape is notoriously hard to prosecute as there's almost always a lack of evidence and conflicting stories. Police are understandably reluctant to go to court unless they a strong case. Let's not forget that in the case of the Urewera raids many of us were critical of the police for not taking the time to have a quiet word with Tame Iti and others before using the full force of the law. Yes, the scenario is very different here, but you can understand why they might have chosen to use their 'soft power' first  and tell the boys to desist, rather than put the victims through the added trauma of a rape case that long odds of resulting in a prosecution.

Or so it seemed. Then, 3News revealed one of the girls had laid a formal complaint and police admitted three other girls had come forward, one just last year. They weren't willing to give evidence at that point, but added to the online admissions, should have at least prompted more action, such as search warrants and the seizure of the boy's electronics.

We're now faced with the very real and terrible fact that while the police sat on actionable information, other girls were being raped. Teina Pora and Malcolm Rewa anyone?

Police Minister Anne Tolley called in Police Commissioner Peter Marshall yesterday for a please-explain meeting and afterwards announced the unprecedented move that she as minister was calling in the Independent Police Conduct Authority to review the case.

Tolley and her predecessor Judith Collins had also been urging the young women to come forward, assuring them the police and their systems have changed for the better. It seems not.

On Tuesday Tolley told media:

"I've been assured by the commissioner they've done everything they possibly can to get evidence ... enough evidence to bring these men to some sort of trial,"

It seems not. Tolley has been made to look foolish, as has Peter Marshall, who says he didn't know of the complaints either.

Marshall went on to make himself look even more foolish last night, insisting on Campbell Live that he was confident the investigation had been handled properly, despite acknowledging he hadn't spoken to the officers leading the case and didn't know operational details. In all too familiar police fashion he was saying "move along, nothing to see here", when he simply hadn't had time to investigate properly. He was proving again the line in the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report in 2011 that famously quoted rank and file officers calling police national HQ "bullshit castle".

This is exactly why we debated 'Are the police losing our trust?' on The Vote last month.

As preparation for that I read Margarat Bazley's commission of inquiry report from 2007, in which she said police misconduct was rare and our force mostly worthy of our faith, before adding that the police's handling of sexual assault cases must improve to retain public confidence. Then-commissioner Howard Broad said at the time that all of her recommendations would be implemented.

That has not happened. The PWC report in 2011 said many of the recommendations "have not been acted on or have not found traction", pointing out that some poor performers were still "poisoning the well". It appears some of them may have been on the RoastBusters case.

Last year in another follow-up report, the Auditor-General's office again stressed that public trust and confidence in the police was at risk if the recommendations were not fully implemented.

"Overall, progress against these recommendations about adult sexual assault investigation is relatively poor, given that it is five years since publication of the Commission's report".

And again this year, the same office said police were still not up to scratch when it came to handling sexual assaults. Most agree the police are improving; you'd much rather be a complainant now than 20 years ago. Except that the way at least one of these complainants was treated shows that the police certainly still have work to do. Marshall would do well to acknowledge that obvious fact rather than once again issuing arse-covering denials from "bullshit castle".

And one side point – how has central districts commander Russell Gibson been disciplined after his awful letter suggesting a 10 year-old was a willing partner in her rape (another sign of police not taking sexual abuse seriously)? Police Association president Greg O'Connor said on The Vote "he will be dealt with severely". Anyone heard what's happened to him?

The lesson for police, which they still seem unwilling to learn, is that it only takes one or two bad cases like this for people to lose trust. And covering up bad cops only send the message to others that their bosses will bullshit for them too.

The disappointing thing is that, for all the public outrage, the use of power has been so poor at all levels. Quite apart from the rapists themselves and the police, there were the teens who knew what was going on, disapproved yet told no-one, the teens who knew and added to the peer pressure on the victims by saying "they're great guys really, this is just what kids do these days", the parents who didn't know what was going on under their noses, and even the radio hosts who don't understand that no clothing choice is an invitation to rape and that no 13 year-old is able to consent to sex. End of.

Indeed, a lot of the public comment, as disgusted as it has been with the boys, has suggested that if the girls went along to these parties... well, what do you expect? That assumes a level of world-weary wisdom in children that is unrealistic. We all need to start reminding ourselves that just because teens like to dress and act more adult than ever before... they are still kids. There's a reason the law says they are simply too young to consent to sex until they are 16; it's because they are. Kids can't make that kind of choice and need our protection so that they never have to.

I'd argue that we've failed to protect the boys as well, by the way.

But before too many of us start bemoaning that this generation is more depraved and corrupted (by the internet, porn and loose living) than ever, let's do a factcheck. A couple of people this week have pointed me to research by the University of Auckland into the sexual behaviour of school kids. The press release announcing its release earlier this year, happily, is titled: "New Zealand youth engaging in less risky pursuits". On page 25, it reads:

"The proportion of students who reported ever having had sex was similar in 2001 and 2007 (approximately a third), but was lower in 2012 (24%). This decrease was most apparent among younger students. "

So the vast majority of Kiwi teens leave high school not having sex. Not quite the Sodom some have been making out this week and a sign that many teens feel empowered enough to say no, which is great.

The decrease might not be quite as welcome as it sounds, however:

"The 2012 question about having ever had sex explicitly told students not to count abuse or unwanted sexual experiences, whereas in 2007 and 2001 this was not stated. Hence, the apparent reduction in students who have ever had sex may partly reflect this change."

So girls who have, for example, been "roasted", might not be counted in this number. However what the survey shows is at least no increase in teen sexual activity. And most of those who are choosing to have sex at that age – while it's not what I'd want for my kids – are doing so legally and realtively safely. Our teenage pregnancy rate suggests we still have work to do, but again it's not quite the picture painted by some this week.

The thought I keep coming back to this week is Sir Peter Gluckman's warnings in recent years about teens' online behaviour and his call for us to raise "resilient" children. These victims will live with what was done to them for the rest of their lives; however well they cope events are likely to trigger the trauma time and again throughout thir lives. But if they can be resilient, they can survive and prosper.

Much the same can be said for the boys; they're going to need to be resilient now as well, because the abuse of power always hurts the abuser too.

As for the rest of us, we can use our power to help the kids we know grow up empowered and resilient. We can raise our beautiful boys to be gentlemen, we can applaud our teens when they are brave enough to say no and we can demand better of those who have power over us, including the police.