1 FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH
Mark Scott investigates an extraordinary case in Napier that highlights concerns over the firepower of our supposedly unarmed police force.
Since the introduction of Tasers in 2010 – touted as a non-lethal alternative to guns – firearm use by our supposedly unarmed police has, in fact, increased. Mark Scott investigates an extraordinary case in Napier that highlights concerns over the firepower of the force.
He’d just bashed his 76-yearold father with a homemade cosh, swallowed a potentially lethal mix of painkillers and now at midnight was parked in his car overlooking one of Napier’s wild shingle beaches, waiting for the end.
Greg Mcpeake had often told his daughter, Bianca, this was how he’d do it – that one day he would settle an unnamed childhood score with his father and then kill himself. She didn’t take him seriously, thought he was just being Dad. Just joking.
If that sounds an odd kind of normal, Bianca knew her father had long been a seriously troubled man. She was used to humouring him, talking him through his moods. Being there for him. He’d been there for her, too, from the beginning, as a doting dad. They still saw each other most days. An early morning text from him, one of his last, captures something of their enduring closeness:
“Happy birthday, 20 years today. U an adult. Time has gone quick. My whatnow girl, love you heaps. Can’t wait to see you. Luv Dad.”
And then there were the letters she wrote to him after he died in that car park; letters bursting to tell him about the plans she had to marry her girlfriend, Adelle Knightly, another of her dad’s favourite people:
It’s been 5 months dad. And it feels like the longest 5 months ever.
I have so much to tell you and share with you. I’m getting married dad. How crazy is that? But I know that you approve! And even tho you won’t be here to walk me down the aisle you’ll still be there in spirit.
Forever and always my heart will be yours daddy. I love you.
Greg Mcpeake’s mental illness was not the only problem. He was also seriously unwell physically. At autopsy, he weighed a monstrous 179kg and, with a painfully unstable heart condition, was barely mobile. Just days before he drove from Taranaki to his pensioner parents’ house in Hastings on that ugly night two years ago, he’d had a minor heart attack, and was so enfeebled by illness that the frail couple managed to wrest the club from him and send him packing. This was a point not explored when, 20 months after Mcpeake’s death in the Westshore car park, some of the police officers involved were charged with using excessive force.
In all, there were six police officers at the scene, armed with a Glock pistol, a Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle, batons, two Taser pistols, three canisters of pepper spray and two police dogs. Of the six, four were on trial for assault with weapons – the use of Tasers and police dogs.
In the early hours of March 13, 2015, the 53-year-old was alone in the darkness at the Napier beach, his huge bulk wedged behind the steering wheel of his compact, two- door Honda SUV. He didn’t know it, but he was being watched. Around midnight, a police patrol among those searching for Mcpeake had spotted the car and was quietly waiting for reinforcements.
The police were right to be cautious. Although Mcpeake had no relevant police record, his daughter had told police who contacted her after the assault that he’d spoken of a crossbow. Bianca hoped that, forewarned, the officers would take extra care. Indeed, standard police procedure when dealing with a lethal distance weapon like a crossbow is to contain a site and then await the Armed Offenders Squad. But that didn’t happen.
The patrol officer, unseen, prepared road spikes but not across the only exit from the car park. Instead, one spike strip was set on a path leading to another part of the park. Later, a second strip was laid out on the street, but mystifyingly 100m north of the car park exit, leaving the through road south to Napier central entirely unimpeded. At the trial, the crucial and puzzling failure to block the only exit barely surfaced in Crown evidence.
In any event, during about 10 minutes of police loudhailer commands, Mcpeake didn’t drive off. But nor did he exit the vehicle as instructed. To drown out the sound of the loudhailer, he turned up the car radio to full distorted volume, puffed on his angina spray to ease his disabling pain and rolled himself another cigarette. He sat there, looking out to sea, maybe hoping it would all go away. Maybe hoping he could die in his kind of peace.
Minutes later, six officers advanced on the car, smashing almost every window. Through the shattered glass, they fired three canisters of a new, powerful pepper spray into the car. Law Enforcement Saber Red Crossfire is an American super-strength pepper spray that was then being trialled in Hawke’s Bay. It is six times stronger than ordinary pepper spray and, according to its makers, on the Scoville (spicy heat) scale is some 67 times more blindingly stinging than if you wiped your eyes with Tabasco pepper sauce.
Constable Alexander Simister, one of the accused, said in a police interview (the comment was read out in court) that he was surprised Mcpeake didn’t try to wipe this burning spray from his eyes, something he regarded as unusual. This was another critical moment of evidence that went unexplored by the Crown during almost two weeks of trial.
The officers present knew Mcpeake had been drinking and was suicidal. Had they factored this in to their approach, they might have realised they were possibly dealing with a medical emergency – both psychiatric and physical.
Instead, his unusual lack of response was deemed to be defiance and there was no pause in the attack. Although he was unarmed and no crossbow was visible – nor indeed present – the passenger door was opened and a dog was fed into the car. A senior dog handler ordered his dog to attack Mcpeake, whose face was covered in Saber Red pepper spray (now standard issue throughout New Zealand). The dog, newly trained and possibly confused by the chaos and affected by the spray, was withdrawn when it failed to achieve a full-mouth bite. Simister then fired his Taser pistol twice.
From the other side of the car, Mcpeake was subjected to a similar combination: Saber Red spray and two Taser pistol discharges.
In all, Mcpeake was shocked by Taser pistols four times, not for any gratuitous reason but because the pistols failed to properly deliver a single five- second disabling shock. Tasers work by sending a current between two
prongs that takes the path of least resistance. In Mcpeake’s case, the current mostly tracked through his deep layer of more conductive body fat, rather than reaching and disabling his muscle tissue, allowing him to brush the prongs aside.
But shocks of even short duration are not a trivial event. Between 2002 and 2003, Amnesty International reported the experiences of police and firearms consultants who were exposed, like Mcpeake, to less than the usual five-second discharge: “Bjornstad, who was jolted for 1.5 seconds as part of his training, said the shock was like a finger in a light socket many times over”; “It’s like getting punched 100 times in a row”; “It’s the most profound pain I have ever felt.”
Resorting to an escalating use of force was reasonable, the jury heard time and again, because responsible, experienced officers decided a full-scale assault was the only way to stop this sick, suicidal man driving off, potentially armed with a crossbow, and risking the lives of others. It was not pointed out that while fear of Mcpeake escaping was given as the reason for the officers being so hasty with their weaponry, they’d neglected to block the only exit from the car park.
Across from the car park, a neighbour was woken by her two dogs barking. In the Napier District Court, she described going to her balcony where she heard loud shouting, then an “almost hysterical female voice” followed by “a male scream… horrible…” At the sound of the two police dogs, her own dogs fell silent.
That “male scream” was likely Mcpeake’s as he was shocked a fourth and final time, after attempting to surrender. On a video recorded by the Taser pistol, there he was, through a mask of pepper spray, agreeing to step out of the car (an attempt to surrender that was barely addressed in court). The dying man – suffering from three canisters of super-strength pepper spray, a dog attack, four Taser pistol discharges and copious bleeding from broken-glass lacerations – was then attacked by two police dogs, set on him simultaneously from the passenger side and at the driver’s door.
The last two dog attacks, launched without the required warnings, occurred after the keys had already been taken from the car. Both senior dog handlers claimed they hadn’t heard two other police officers shouting the warning: “Keys out! Keys out!” Nor had they seen the keys being taken from the ignition and held aloft. One officer also explained he hadn’t been aware another dog was already attacking Mcpeake when he also set his dog on the immobile target.
With the two dogs withdrawn, after one became entangled in the Taser wires and with the other reacting to pepper spray, Mcpeake was simply pulled from the vehicle and thrown to the ground, then pinned by several police officers.
In the days following the incident, I talked to another neighbour living opposite the car park who had been woken
THE DYING MAN – SUFFERING FROM THREE CANISTERS OF SUPERSTRENGTH PEPPER SPRAY, A DOG ATTACK, FOUR TASER PISTOL DISCHARGES AND BLEEDING FROM BROKEN-GLASS LACERATIONS – WAS THEN ATTACKED BY TWO POLICE DOGS, SIMULTANEOUSLY.
by the noise. An elderly, salt-of-the-earth Kiwi, he didn’t wish to be identified, but told me what he’d witnessed: “None of that had to happen,” he said. “There were that many cops there, they could have turned the car upside down and shaken him out.”
With Mcpeake on the ground, manhandled away from the car, there was now no fear of a weapon and no access to the car; a police dog was in a dominating position and it was plainly obvious Mcpeake was obese and barely able to move. Or breathe.
It was then Senior Constable Andrew Knox, described in court by colleagues as “being almost too nice to be in the police force”, told a junior officer, Constable Rochelle Bryant, to prepare her Taser in cattle-prod mode, ready to shock him again if necessary. It was an instruction, given Mcpeake’s obvious helpless position, that suggests just how reliant on Tasers police have become.
There was no need for the cattle prod. There was no need because there was no pulse. No breath, just foam and bile laced with pepper spray. Mcpeake’s movements as he sprawled on the ground weren’t resistance – they were a death rattle.
He was shocked once more, but this time in an effort to save his life. A defibrillator was fetched from the patrol car as part of desperate attempts at resuscitation. He died, handcuffed, as he lay on the ground. (The court would later be told the actions of the officers did not cause his death.) But the fact of his death, certified at 2.10am, almost disappeared without trace in the media. Shortly after, I noted a brief news report that a man had died while resisting arrest and had not responded to police resuscitation efforts.
Most New Zealanders would assume the circumstances of Mcpeake’s death were a world away from the reality of triggerhappy American policing, as revealed by videos. So how was it that an unarmed man, probably undergoing a heart attack, died while being subject to such a rapid escalation of police action? I decided to follow the case.
My own understanding of the issues comes from more than 30 years of investigations into police conduct and culture, which back in the 1980s was rife with bashings, usually little more than rugby- grade biffo. But, 10 years ago, during a 60 Minutes series examining police pursuits, dog policy, use of force and the introduction of the Taser pistol, I saw concerning trends.
Then, I paid particular attention to comparative use-of-force statistics and found the New Zealand police used pepper spray at a rate four times greater than their Australian counterparts; our then-supposedly unarmed police force shot people at a slightly greater rate than the Australians; police dogs were biting so many people that the entire squad could have been investigated, according to international criteria, and more mostly young people were being killed in police pursuits than in any comparable jurisdiction. Now, I discover, it has just about all got worse.
The Napier case was an ideal opportunity to check progress in regards to use of weapons. None of my usual sympathetic police sources, also concerned about the direction of New Zealand policing, knew anything about the Mcpeake case.
Eventually, I learned through his daughter, Bianca Mcpeake, that four police officers involved were to be charged with assault. The Napier court could not provide any details of the upcoming hearing. Everything in relation to the trial had been suppressed, it seemed, including the existence of the trial itself.
For almost two years, I kept in touch with Bianca, following her story of resilience as she rebuilt her life; her determination to honour her father with her own success. Barely 21, she worked multiple jobs and turned a passion for photography into a thriving photo-portrait business, with a studio she refurbished herself. Every so often, I’d receive from her heartfelt messages she wrote to her departed father.
“Everyone thinks you were such a disappointment, but you were always my hero.
“I was such a daddy’s girl when I was young… Everything I do now is to make you and Mum proud and to prove to everyone that no matter what they think, you did do something right in life because I wouldn’t be the person I am today without you xx.”
Finally, late last year, Bianca and her fiancée, Adelle Knightly, were by themselves in the public gallery of the Napier court, otherwise filled by supporters of the four police officers. The atmosphere in the court was warm, collegial. The four officers shifted from the witness box to take their place among the lawyers and, as a succession of local police officers gave evidence favourable to their colleagues, there were small grins and discreet thumbs-up.
Bianca was there for her dad. One last time. To see justice done.
All four Napier police officers were acquitted. This is not unusual. My own research through media reports over the past decade shows that New Zealand juries, like their US counterparts, very seldom convict police officers charged with illegal violence.
There are under-the-radar cases like Nelson officer Garry Dunn, acquitted by jury in 2011 on charges of pepper spraying and driving his patrol car into a young cyclist, who fled after being stopped for not wearing a helmet. In Rotorua, Constable David Mear was acquitted in 2012, despite one colleague reporting him striking a man with a heavy torch and putting his face on the ground, which resulted in a fractured eye socket. Then there were the two Manukau juries who, despite evidence from two police-officer witnesses, in 2009 and 2010 failed to convict Constable Clinton Lyall Hill on an assault charge.
One more public case, which reportedly involved alleged attempts by two sergeants to discourage witnesses, was the 2011 acquittal of Auckland Sergeant Martin Folan on six charges of bashing unresisting prisoners. The alleged assaults were serious. One victim lost a testicle after a witnessed knee strike, but a charge relating to the injury was withdrawn when it was ruled the victim may have also been kicked in the balls in an earlier fracas, but somehow failed to remember it.
Six police officers were brave enough to give evidence in that trial, in the face of considerable opposition from within the blue wall of silence. The jury reached a verdict of not guilty, despite hearing testimony from those officers, who were later congratulated by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) for their “principles and courage”.
And then there was the 2008 acquittal of four Whakatane police officers, Sergeants Keith Parsons and Erle Busby, and Constables Bruce Laing and John Mills. A CCTV recorded, over a period of 20 minutes, a prisoner who’d suffered a psychotic episode being peppersprayed 65 times and beaten with batons while locked in a tiny cell.
Following the verdict in that case, defence counsel Susan Hughes QC declared acquittal had been the only possible outcome. That was also her position in the Napier court, where Hughes – police union- supplied and part-funded – defended Senior Constable Knox at the jury trial. She was joined by three other highly effective defence counsel: Jonathan Krebs, Doug Rishworth and Rachael Adams, who passionately asserted their clients were simply decent, brave police officers doing their duty, their honest best to keep the citizens of Napier safe – officers who were now being judged unfairly and in hindsight by armchair experts.
It was a mantra of great force and clarity. Many times, the jury was told how unfair it was to judge the actions of those braving mortal danger.
And what a parade of dangers was placed before the court. The senior dog handler, the only one of the four officers on trial granted permanent name suppression, spoke during a police interview of how much he feared the crossbow. “I think they are one of the worst weapons available. Their penetration is ridiculous. They’re just a really dangerous weapon, their penetration. They have incredible penetration, more so than what a bullet does.”
Penetration. The court never learned why all available anti-penetration ballistic protection was not worn and why unprotected police officers crowded around the vehicle in the line of potential fire. Police experts commented that had there been a real fear of a crossbow, no police officer would have been anywhere near the car.
And then, added to the dog handler’s fear of penetration, was his fear of the fistic prowess of the tragically obese Mcpeake, wedged behind the steering wheel. At interview, he said he was worried Mcpeake would somehow be able to reach across from the driver’s side and deliver a knockout punch while he was attempting to open the passenger door. “Had he struck me in the head, he would have knocked me unconscious, and if I fell into the vehicle and he had got hold of me, it would have been very difficult for anyone to do anything about it.”
Luckily, he was able to set his dog on Mcpeake.
And so, the jury heard, on that moonless night the fearsome struggle raged on. Mcpeake was repeatedly observed lunging for the ignition to drive off but oddly never reaching it. He was repeatedly seen reaching with ninja stealth
for a weapon that was never there. As described by Constable Bryant, his eyes displayed “rage and anger”.
Then the Taser camera footage was shown. As the images screened, they indelibly made the case for body cameras as standard equipment for police.
It was not the first time Taser- cam footage has disproved police verbal evidence. In a 2011 Timaru case, the prior violent hurling of a shower door at police was cited as part of the justification for Tasering a man after he “lashed out” at officers when he pushed past them. A serious assault charge could have seen him jailed, but the Taser video recording showed that the incident with the shower door never happened. ( An internal review found the officers did not breach the New Zealand Police Code of Conduct, but an IPCA report later criticised the two constables for not following “good policing practice”.)
Police have been puzzlingly slow to learn about the power of video evidence. It’s not the only case where Taser cameras have shown that levels of violence did not occur as claimed (see Sobering Roll Call, page 39). And as with videotaped interviews, a clear record also gives protection for officers against false complaints. The introduction of body cameras is favoured by new police association president Chris Cahill.
In the Napier courtroom, the expected images of a crossbow-wielding ninja with a long-range, knock-out punch shape-shifted into a sad blob of a man in extremis. It was from this factual visual record that I’ve described the car park scene. As these images were screened, Bianca watched from her place in the gallery. Her supportive police liaison team had earlier arranged a private viewing so she could witness for the first time the ghastly last moments of her father’s life.
There was an awful clarity to the images projected from several screens around the courtroom of this bleeding man feebly swatting away at electricshock barbs, fending off police dogs, and tugging at his door. The eyes of the dying man were perhaps bulging not with rage, but with the struggle to breathe.
Perfectly audible was Mcpeake agreeing to surrender to a Taser-wielding Constable Bryant and her shouted demands that he step out of the car – only to be shocked as he moved to comply. During the trial, Radio NZ reported, it also emerged that Bryant was only four months out of police college and had never fired a Taser before or even seen one being used.
She said she thought Mcpeake was reaching for a weapon ( known as a “waistband move” and often cited by American police to defend hair-trigger shootings). Since there was no weapon, perhaps he was simply shifting his weight so he could exit the vehicle.
Defence counsel argued eloquently that the seven minutes of visual evidence from both cameras were but a tiny snapshot of the totality of the event. And there was little Crown rebuttal of matching clarity or force. Since the charges of assault by dog and Taser pistol referred only to the moments perfectly caught by the cameras, forceful rebuttal surely wouldn’t have been difficult? The cameras showed none of the violence reported at the point where the accused claimed violence left them no choice but to use Taser pistols and dogs.
Both police experts for the Crown, Inspectors Todd Southall, national co- ordinator police dogs, and Bryan Buck, manager of the Canterbury AOS, pointed out, in a roundabout, expert way, there was no evidence of assaultive behaviour from Mcpeake in the period before Tasers and dogs were deployed.
But even without benefit of the Taser footage, Inspector Buck – using oldschool police timeline deduction – pointed to sequence inconsistencies between the officers’ different versions. Violent struggles with Mcpeake were witnessed but not corroborated by evidence from the police officers supposedly engaged in them.
In one way, this failure to match stories was reassuring. The tactic of a police team meeting together to physically act out an event according to an agreed narrative obviously didn’t happen in this case.
Certainly, both experts didn’t pull any punches in testifying that police at the scene had no justification for their use of force. Southall was clear the use of the dogs was outside accepted practice, particularly once the keys had been removed: “…a warning must be given and there was no sign of a warning from either dog handler. The [offender] must be given some option to surrender. There’s no way a dog could pull out a 179kg person… All they’re doing is biting the person.”
Buck pointed out that proper containment is vital. “In a case where this person, the sole occupant of a car [was] parked in front of a beach… time is your friend… You can negotiate with this person for as long as it takes. Mcpeake was totally passive, up to the time when police raised the level of aggression by assaulting the vehicle.”
But the two inspectors’ knowledge and experience was no match for the defence’s firepower in the courtroom. Counsel Jonathan Krebs crossed swords with Inspector Southall. The police expert was attempting to explain that in the absence of any visible crossbow or weapon of any kind – and with the subject barely able to move – there was little threat.
“When you look at the size of Mr Mcpeake, the condition he was in... It would be difficult for him to adopt rapid movements from that vehicle, like reaching behind...”
Krebs interrupted with a perfect Ruth Rendell flourish: “Come on, inspector! He could easily have fired that crossbow out of the car at somebody standing at a distance between me and you now, couldn’t he?”
Southall answered: “If he had the crossbow, if it was there. My point is that the staff were putting their hands in the vehicle to take the keys out. So all I’m saying is, was it actually that great a threat?”
Crown counsel Ben Vanderkolk also seemed somewhat outgunned by the highly effective defence team. Take this verbatim comment on the lack of reflex by Mcpeake to Saber Red pepper spray in his eyes: “Because of his size, members of the jury, it may well be that where he was and perhaps because of the drugs and alcohol that he’d taken – that you will hear about in the course of this trial – Mr Mcpeake appeared somewhat resistant to the pepper spray.”
A circuitous thread of thought for any jury to follow, but parsed on paper, it seems Vanderkolk was seriously suggesting that obesity reduces the effect of pepper spray, thus partly explaining Mcpeake’s resistance. As reported in Scientific American and other journals, morbid obesity, with its associated health issues, doesn’t diminish the effect of pepper spray, but increases the risk of harm from it.
At the outset, the Crown also emphasised it accepted a post-mortem opinion that there was no causal link with the Tasering to Mcpeake’s death by heart failure. Nor did it dispute the defence claim that far from the police causing his death, he was already dying when they arrived. The post-mortem examination found he had a cocktail of drugs in his system. The use of angina spray also suggested he was undergoing some kind of cardiac event.
But that raised a series of questions altogether unasked: at the first sign of atypical non-responsive behaviour (the failure of reflex) to Saber Red from someone who was a known suicide risk, was there a duty of care? Was it time to take stock, as police expert witnesses suggested? Had Mcpeake been rushed to hospital, was there a chance he may have survived? There are straightforward procedures to treat overdose. Certainly Taser and police dog bites would not have helped his chances of survival.
And then there was the matter of the road spikes. Vanderkolk busied himself establishing just what, in general, road spikes are. What length; which way, if any, spikes are angled. Are they generally deployed slanted in the direction of expected approach by the fleeing felon? Or are they not? It was eventually established that spikes stand vertically.
I was stabbing at my notebook. Would these, by any chance, be the same spikes that were never set across the only exit, a fact somewhat germane to the entire trial?
The spikes were critical for a mix of reasons. The law is plain. Police are allowed to use only the least amount of force necessary to contain danger. Excessive force, with reasonable allowance for circumstances, is criminal. Blocking the exit was the least violent means of containing the threat of Mcpeake driving off.
In the event, individual officers were able to claim, without challenge, they had to attack the car urgently because road spikes would not be 100 per cent effective in preventing Mcpeake rampaging with a crossbow through the streets of Napier. Forgetting the fact there were no spikes at all at the exit, that claim posed an obvious unasked question: why not then simply block the only exit with a police car?
In an attempted jocular moment with an unamused defence counsel, I suggested that we two, as untrained passersby, would have done a better job: we’d have blocked the exit with a car and, with genuine fears of a crossbow, called the Armed Offenders Squad. That is not just a matter of basic police training, as the experts attested, but mere common sense. ( One of the officers told the court he’d considered calling the AOS, but “did not believe
they had enough information to do so”.)
And so Vanderkolk, cutting a fine figure centre-stage, drifted from the general properties of the road spike to the properties of the collapsible police baton, which was never at issue (the use of batons and pepper spray were not subject to prosecution.) He examined, with Popular Mechanics detail, the workings of a Taser pistol, inviting jury members to handle the prongs. At one point, he asked a puzzled Judge Phillip Cooper to rebuke the press bench when a journalist dropped a pen.
Particularly memorable was Vanderkolk’s suggestion that Constable Bryant fired her Taser because she was a young woman. Her defence counsel, Rachael Adams, didn’t mince words. “She was not a frightened little girl, as insultingly and disparagingly put by the Crown.” The judge, in his summing-up, tellingly suggested the jury may want to consider Vanderkolk’s observation.
I had my own difficulty with Vanderkolk. I introduced myself to explain I’d learned a jury member’s brother was once a policeman, prosecuted by the police, and thus might have sympathy for police officers being prosecuted. I got an impatient walk- off. No verbal reply, literally a chin in the air and a swish of cape. No possible interest in granting a North & South writer the slightest moment of attention. The judge was interested, though. He called a halt to the trial.
Luckily, there was no cause for concern. Following an investigation, held in camera, the judge released a judicial minute noting that, at jury empanelment, he had given “very explicit direction that [if ] anyone being called had a relative who was a member of the police, [they] should advise me”.
The judge recorded that the juror did not feel it necessary to mention his brother was once a police officer because he had left the force a long time ago and had had other jobs since. The minute also recorded the juror was confident his police connection would not impact on his ability to be fair and impartial. The judge found there was no need to discharge the juror, who impressed “as a person who would act conscientiously, fairly and impartially”.
Meanwhile, the police union-funded defence team elicited glowing personal testimonials for each defendant from
local colleagues, in one case, from Glenn Baker, whose command role as acting sergeant at the car park remains under scrutiny as part of an internal investigation. Baker told the court that events at the car park “played out as they had to”, and he hadn’t changed his opinion of the defendants’ worth.
An effective move by the defence was to ask the outside police experts, after their critical testimony, to recite for each defendant a litany of favourable employment performance core- competency appraisals.
Choosing the experts to read out the testimonials – that certainly spoke of genuine experience, wisdom, courage and adaptability – was laying the ground for a masterful courtroom king- hit. After reciting these glowing accounts, the experts were then, in effect, asked to agree that their own expert judgment should take second place to that of the accused. Weren’t the people best equipped to make assessments at the scene these officers of known excellent judgment, temperament, experience and expertise who were actually there?
Soon after, the jury retired. Their deliberations took just a few minutes longer than lunch, before they returned and acquitted all four officers.
Although the officers were found not guilty, they and the acting sergeant still face investigation and possible disciplinary action, through a Code of Conduct employment process overseen by the IPCA.
Following the acquittals, one counsel, Susan Hughes QC, told me that, from her experience, these four officers would never have been prosecuted at all were it not for Greg Mcpeake’s death. It must be acknowledged, of course, that it was the police that put the case before the courts.
The question remains: was this also a verdict on whether our police – now with a Taser on every frontline hip and access to assault rifles and 17-shot Glock pistols in almost every frontline patrol car – can abandon decades of established careful police practice, barely mindful of legal consequence?
One police expert stated there was no need to go in “guns blazing” that night. A figure of speech, perhaps, but what if Mcpeake had attempted to drive off through an exit left wide open? Would the trigger-fingers have moved from Taser to Glock?
Police were asked for comment in December and written questions were submitted under the Official Information Act. The police declined to be interviewed until the OIA requests had been processed. No response was received by press-time.
However, the so- called “weapons effect” is well documented. Psychology professor Brad Bushman of Ohio State University in the US says there’s a large body of research that shows weapons affect behaviour: the presence of a gun or Taser makes both the police officers carrying them, and the people around them, more aggressive.
In contrast to an increasingly militarised US police force, the UK’S largely unarmed officers are taught to back away from any situation that might otherwise escalate – to not feel they have to “win” every confrontation. The statistics speak for themselves. In the 12 months to March 2016, British police discharged their firearms on just seven occasions – actually the highest count since 2009.
At the time of writing, sketchy reports came from Kaitaia of another police stand-off involving a driver who locked himself in his van after being stopped for a traffic offence. The driver became increasingly agitated, eventually brandishing a taiaha club in a display of defiance. Police didn’t check- list the force options available to them; there was no pepper spray, no Taser, no gunfire or car chase.
Instead, having confirmed the man’s identity, seen his state of mind and noted the presence of children, the police withdrew and allowed him on his way – to be dealt with later at a time safer for everyone.
There is a softly, softly hallmark of police best practice that, when only the authority of the officer is at stake, there is a “responsibility to reasonably and safely retreat”. With an unarmed police force, the retreat occurs naturally. But once police are armed with Taser or gun, there can be a trigger-finger tendency to demand compliance, very often from offenders too agitated to sensibly respond. Drawing a line in the sand by pistol or Taser is escalation policing. It is dangerous to citizens and dangerous to police officers. In Kaitaia that day, they got it exactly right.
An illustrated rendering of an early photograph of Greg Mcpeake and his daughter, Bianca. She remained close to her father – “Everyone thinks you were such a disappointment, but you were always my hero” – despite his mental health problems.
Bianca with her father’s ashes. She told the court her father was estranged from his parents. “My dad really couldn’t get past the upbringing he was given.” She accepted he had to be arrested after attacking his father, Ray Mcpeake, but claims police used excessive force.
The failure of courts to convict police officers accused of using excessive force often comes under the spotlight in the United States. The April 2015 shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina (pictured above) followed a traffic stop for a non-functioning brake light. Scott, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by police officer Michael Slager, who was charged with murder after a video surfaced that showed him shooting Scott from behind, contradicting his own report. In December last year, a state judge declared a mistrial, due to a hung jury. A retrial is scheduled for March.
A Taser pistol in action.