Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people

Apparently multiple complainants about sexual offending by men who then brag about it on the internet isn't enough to get before the courts. But there'll be no hesitation in prosecution if you dare to make a pretend poster criticising the Police's attitude towards such crimes!

There's been enough blogosphere coverage of the ongoing investigation of a group of young repeat rapists in Auckland that I haven't felt the particular need to vent on it. Lots of other people are better at discussing the issues, and I didn't have much extra to add to them.

But things are getting to the stage where the matter is starting to go beyond rage at the activities of some very nasty people to serious alarm about how the Police have responded to it.

Let me say at the outset that I'm prepared to give the Police a degree of slack on this topic. I'm aware that the way the law works in relation to sexual offending makes it hard to bring successful prosecutions. It's a shame that past suggestions about doing something to change this have fallen by the wayside.

So the fact no prosecutions have (yet) been brought isn't in and of itself a reason to condemn the Police out of hand; whether the original investigation was satisfactory is something the IPCA will tell us in time. But let's all agree the Police's "messaging" on the issue has been pretty average. Going from "we didn't have the individual complaints we needed to prosecute", to "actually, there were four individual complaints, but none of them were formal enough to prosecute", to "it turns out we actually did get a formal complaint, but it still wasn't enough to prosecute" is ... troubling.

In a straight off choice between a cock up and conspiracy, I'm tempermentally inclined to prefer the cock up option. Partly this is because I'm a cozy part of the establishment, who expects the other parts of it to do their best to carry out their jobs properly. Partly it's because most people I know are prone to screwing up even the most simple of tasks, and so managing a conspiracy is beyond them. Partly it's because it would just be so monumentally stupid to think that you could cover up the complaints that had been made, once the media was hot on the trail of the story.

So, again, if it turns out that the Police's problem in telling a straight story on this issue came out of personnel changing jobs and confusion as to what constitutes a "complaint" or a "formal complaint" or the like, I'll accept it. Provided, of course, the story is a believable one.

However, for the police to now turn around and threaten to prosecute a blogger (oh, OK, Martyn Bradbury) who mocks up a police recruitment poster savaging the Police's record with respect to rape allegations is beyond dumb. (You can see a copy of the relevant poster on NoRightTurn here ... I agree with Idiot Savant that the tag line could have been better framed, but the fact a satire isn't very subtle (or that clever) doesn't make its point any less valid.)

The Police may think this poster is unfair. They may think it is inaccurate. Individual officers who are doing their best to help survivors of sexual assault and bring them some justice may even find it hurtful.

But that's just tough bikkies. The Police "have form" in this area, as we would do well to remember. There are some grounds to look sceptically at how they have approached the Auckland rape ring investigation. So facing some robust and pointed criticism on this issue is perfectly legitimate. And trying to shut it up is not jsut dumb, but wrong.

For the record, the offence Bradbury was threatened with is this:

49 Use of term Police or New Zealand Police in operating name

(1) A person commits an offence who, without reasonable excuse, carries on an activity under an operating name that includes the word Police or the words New Zealand Police, in a manner likely to lead a person to believe that the activity is endorsed or authorised by the Police or any part of the Police.

(2) A person who commits an offence against this section is liable on conviction,—

(a) in the case of an individual, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to a fine not exceeding $5,000:

(b) in the case of a body corporate, to a fine not exceeding $20,000.

His poster doesn't even meet the elements of this offence on a plain reading of the provision; and when you throw in the Bill of Rights Act guarantee of freedom of expression, there is no way he or anyone else who reproduces the poster is ever going to be convicted of it.

I'd also point to a degree of irony in the eagerness with which the Police have threatened prosecution on this issue, and the apparent difficulty in pressing charges against the individuals involved in the Auckland rape ring. Apparently the Solicitor General's guidelines on bringing prosecutions with no chance of success aren't quite so tightly binding when the Police think they are the "victims" of offending.


Update: I see from the NZ Herald that the Police have given a somewhat fuller set of reasons for wishing to see the parody poster removed:

A police spokeswoman said they asked had asked for the image be taken down because it was "extremely insensitive to victims of sexual violence and offensive to police officers who work tirelessly to help them''.

"The police recruitment story behind the image features a dedicated police officer who rescued a young woman from an ex-partner who sent hundreds of abusive text messages to the woman over a matter of days.

"Police therefore asked that the image be taken down.''

Fair enough. As I said, " Individual officers who are doing their best to help survivors of sexual assault and bring them some justice may even find [the poster] hurtful." And I don't think I'd have made such a poster myself (see previous reference to "cozy member of the establishment"); and if I did, I'd probably have respected the Police's reasons for asking me to take it down (if they gave me these reasons).

But it seems that the Police didn't provide Bradbury with any of this background to their "request" at the time they made it - rather, they tried to heavy him with a threat of prosecution (in circumstances where there isn't a remote chance of such a prosecution resulting in a conviction). Indeed, they tried to make the relevant offence provision do the sort of job that this one does - stop people using the Police's name and logo altogether. But that just isn't what the provision is there to do.

So - sure, the Police's motives here may have been a bit lighter than "we want to stop people criticising us on the internet." But still, it was a silly move in the circumstances, and one that they ought to have understood would just not work.