The inside story, Neil Cameron

More Than Law and Order: Policing a Changing Society 1945-92
Susan Butterworth
University of Otago Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1877276995

More Than Law and Order is the fifth in the by now massive and somewhat diverse official history of the New Zealand Police. It follows a very similar format to the last volume – Graeme Dunstall’s A Policeman’s Paradise? (1918-1945) – and brings the series up to 1992 with the emergence of the New Zealand Police as a recognisably modern public sector police agency.

In this volume, the author has been luckier than her two predecessors. As she says, she has been largely relieved of the task of detailing the minutiae of everyday police life and chronicling local initiatives by the existence of a comprehensive set of district histories that cover the period well. Accordingly, she is able to focus rather more on the broad sweep of developments, needing to highlight only those very few crimes, incidents and disasters that had national impact. Nevertheless many of the characteristics of the “record for future generations” – as Rob Robinson describes the book in his foreword – remain. In particular, much of the narrative is heavily personalised with great pains being taken to detail all the participants, emphasise individual initiatives and identify locations. So, for example, even the technician who happens to be working nearest the camera in a stock shot of the fingerprints section (two banks of unexceptional filing cabinets and a worktable) is duly named.

Butterworth also has the advantage that, as the wife of a former Police Association research officer, she is in many ways an insider, and she tells many of the significant stories of her period with the relish of a privileged observer. As she says, from 1977 effectively until 1992 she “had a box seat at one of the most entertaining shows in New Zealand …. I met many of the people who feature in this book, and took part in many a dinner-table discussion about the issues of the day.” As a result, her take on the creation of the “new system of policing” in the 1970s – centralised, specialised, reactive – and her extended discussion of what is in effect the police “side” of the 1981 Springbok Tour – which rightly also merits a full chapter – are particularly sure-footed. Not surprisingly, so too is her material on the role of the revitalised Police Association from the pivotal appointment of Rob Moodie as its national secretary in 1976. In a rather different way, her discussion of the Crewe murders, while regrettably unlikely to be the final word on the subject, is also exemplary. Her treatment of the rise and fall of Commissioner Compton (1952-1955) and the dramatic changes instituted by his successor, the then Secretary for Justice Sam Barnett, is also well handled. It is always salutary to be reminded that the embarrassing public servant’s exaggeratedly golden handshake has a long and dishonourable history.

Although Butterworth’s main story is the development of a centralised, well-equipped, technologically and administratively savvy reactive police force, from an organisation that in 1944 had “its back to the future”, she deals with a number of important subplots along the way. So, for example, the status and role of women, the policing of different types of disorder, the hesitant development of “proactive” policing strategies and activities, employment issues such as the long drawn-out battle to achieve promotion on merit, civilianisation and early retirement, and the gaining and subsequent shedding of security and intelligence functions, are all discussed both as part of the “modernisation” theme and as topics in their own right. As with the previous volumes in this series, some of these “subsidiary” areas – if they can really be called that – are handled more successfully than others. Not surprisingly, much seems to depend on the content of the organisational record and on the availability of personal accounts as well as the author’s own interests and contacts.

For example, while the development of the police organisation and management structure over the period, the issues raised by the introduction of new technology, the policing of disorder and the conflicts over employment matters are well handled, the treatment of proactive, “community based” initiatives is less successful. Concern with the police/community interface as an issue in its own right and the need to construct distinct strategies to address it had inevitably emerged as a result of the introduction of the “new system of policing” in the early 1970s. It remains a central concern of modern policing, and the history of efforts to address what was ultimately (and unfortunately) christened “Community Orientated Policing” is a highly instructive one for any student of the police.

Unfortunately its treatment here is fragmented and confused – which is probably at least partly a reflection of the confusion and conflict that such initiatives always produce within both police officers and police organisations, and hence within the organisational record. So while community liaison, “community initiated crime prevention”, victim support and related developments are treated as separate topics under the general rubric of “softer” or more “proactive” initiatives, “community orientated policing” is consigned essentially to the last five years of the period and, significantly, treated as a distinct and “new” programme. In this area at least, it would have been useful to have a more systematic analysis of the concepts and methods in play, and of the basic theoretical structures and some of the major overseas models that were available to and examined by the New Zealand Police.

Two areas of omission are also worth commenting on. First, given the social history of this period, there is surprisingly little mention of the emerging gang phenomenon and its impact both on policing practice and on the politics of policing. More generally, the whole area of Maori offending and the debates that raged around the policing of Maori in the late 1980s is very poorly served by the brief section on Maori offending that Butterworth includes in her chapter on proactive initiatives. It is certainly true that throughout the period the police strongly resisted attempts to describe offending in ethnic terms, but this does not mean that the increasing politicisation of the policing of ethnic groups can be similarly avoided.

Secondly – and this is common to all five volumes of this series – there is little consideration of the developing legal framework within which the police operated or of the organisation and ideology of the police prosecution process. This is particularly problematic in this volume since it is the “new system of policing” which above all emphasises legality and the legal mandate as the new cornerstone of police legitimacy.

Between 1945 and 1992 the legal tools available to the police were progressively modernised – both in terms of the substantive law and in the development of wide ranging new powers. At the same time efforts were made, both internally and in legislation, to ensure a greater degree of legal accountability for police actions. Little of this appears here, and the pivotal political role played by National Headquarters and the Police Association in this process is only really dealt with in any detail in relation to the rewriting of the narcotics legislation in 1969. Thus, for example, neither the major revision and modernisation of the Crimes Act 1908 in 1961, nor the replacement of the archaic Police Offences Act 1927 by the Summary Offences Act in 1981, receive much attention, and, outside the drugs area, there is little mention of police powers. Yet this was a field of enormous importance for the emergence of modern policing, and it was an arena in which the police for the first time began to play a significant political role – causing a certain amount of concern among other government departments and attracting the criticism of, among others, Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

Neither is there any discussion of the prosecution function and how it was managed and developed over this period. This is a pity. By 1980 the New Zealand system for conducting everyday summary prosecutions was virtually unique in the common law world. Over the last part of this period, attitudes to major aspects of the prosecution process, both within the police and in the public and political arenas, were undergoing significant change. This is reflected, for example, in the new legal regime for dealing with juveniles introduced in 1989, increasing police experimentation with adult diversion and in many of the “softer” developments that Butterworth outlines. Furthermore, the New Zealand Police were well aware of overseas initiatives restructuring the prosecution process, particularly in England and Wales, and the threat they posed and to which to some extent they responded.

This is a book both for dipping into and for more sustained reading. In spite of some weaknesses, it is considerably more readable as an ongoing narrative than the previous volumes in the series and provides a well-informed, authoritative and basically comprehensive review of a very significant period in New Zealand policing. As with most official histories, it is heavily dependent on the organisational record and on internal “histories” and rather light on “outside” source material, but it clearly fulfills all the basic requirements of any such history. No doubt there are still specialist histories of the period to be written, and there remains plenty of room for more critical analyses of much of the material that Butterworth covers, but she has done the basic groundwork for any such discussion.

 

Neil Cameron is an adjunct lecturer in the Law Faculty at Victoria University of Wellington and has worked with the New Zealand Police in a number of capacities and areas since the early 1970s.

 

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