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On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Police Commissioner Mike Bush

Mike Bush is in his final days as New Zealand’s Police Commissioner.

He took the role in 2014 and his six years at the helm have proved historic.

When the Christchurch terror attack happened on March 15 last year, he was in the Command Centre watching the live stream.

Simon Shepherd began by asking him whether he realised in that moment that policing in New Zealand had changed forever.

Mike Bush: New Zealand lost its innocence that day. What we saw there was unprecedented, and it was something we never want to see again, and we will strive with our partners to make sure that we do everything to prevent anything like that happening again.

Simon Shepherd: And for the force itself, how has that changed?

Well, as a result of that, we’ve been a lot busier, of course. After that event, as you know, we reached out to people with a, sort of, approach that if you see something, you should say something. So as a result of that, we’ve got a lot more leads in terms of people that are suspected of, perhaps, bringing some threat to the harm of others, so we’ve been very busy making sure that those people don’t do that. We’ve done a lot of other things too in terms of just examining how we police.

Right, so has the public bought into that ‘see something, say something’? You’re getting a lot more tip-offs?
Yes, absolutely. The public have been great in terms of bringing things to us where they might have a suspicion. Like us, they want to make sure that everyone’s safe. That’s what we’re here to do, so police and public work so well together.

Are you policing differently as a result of March 15?

What we’re doing is we took a stock take after this to ask ourselves if the way we policed was appropriate. What we agreed was absolutely, but we needed to do more of it, especially in terms of our outreach to all communities, but also the way we equip and train our staff.

Okay, there is a strategy being developed for protecting crowded spaces. You mention that in the annual report. Can you tell us where that is up to?

Yes, so that will be launched sometime soon, and it’s in line with international best practice, about making sure that where people gather, they’ll be safe together, and putting things in place to ensure that occurs.

But does that mean you have to restrict people’s movements and restrict freedom of association?

No, no, it’s how we manage those places. It’s really important that people are safe and free to go about what they normally do, and there are things we can do to make sure that happens safely.

Okay, so March 15 and the ensuing days and weeks was the biggest police operation in New Zealand history. Was a plan already in place for something like that?

I can tell you that we train and equip our staff to deal with serious events, national security events, and as you saw on the day, our people responded in the most courageous and professional way, and within 18 minutes and 59 seconds, that person was in custody, but within six minutes, our people were on the ground. Our people are really well-equipped. It was also a good coincidence that we were training staff in similar events on that day, so we had people available to respond, but I can assure the public that if was to occur anywhere around New Zealand, we’d have people and a capability to respond immediately.

Okay, so that was the response, but there was criticism from the Muslim community that they had raised flags about extremist behaviour before March 15. Have they been failed? Have the police failed them in terms of being able to prevent something like this happening?

So, at the moment, we’re going through a Royal Commission of inquiry, which is looking at a number of those aspects, but I can tell you that there was nothing on our radar, nothing that authorities knew that could have got in front of this. That doesn’t mean that we’re not working really closely with each other, because we do all have the same intent to ensure that something like this never occurs on our shores again.

Have you been more involved with the spy agencies as a result of this?

Yes, absolutely. When I said that we’re getting more information from the public, we share that with each other, so intelligence community, policing, we work really closely together on those matters; because more information is coming to hand, we meet more often.

Okay, as a result of March 15, there’s, of course, the gun buyback and the gun register, but what about the police themselves? Would the public be safer if the police were routinely armed?

So that’s something we stopped and asked ourselves, and we did an evidence research on whether or not being routinely armed kept police and their communities safer. There’s nothing to suggest it does, so the current stance of being a routinely armed—unarmed police service is where we sit. It’s where we remain. I remain committed to that, but that doesn’t mean at the same time, we don’t want to make sure that we improve our training and that we improve our access to tactical options and weapons if the need arises, and also our people are authorised to make those decisions themselves.

Okay.

So we’re in a really good place.

All right, you say that it wasn’t preventable, March 15, that there was nothing on the horizon, but the one way to monitor hate crime activity is a register, and we don’t have one of those. Should we have one?

Look, we have intelligence methods for keeping track of people who will threaten others. Again, we’ve been improving on this for quite some time, even leading up to this horrific event. So, you know, we keep a focus on anyone who might threaten others, especially in this fashion.

So you don’t support the idea of a hate crime activity register or a hate crime register or, you know, making sure that when a crime’s committed, like a common assault, that it’s clear whether it’s common assault or whether it has a hate crime aspect?

Look, regardless of what you call it, we’re very keen to ensure that we keep note and a record of people who may threaten others, and some of what you’re talking about is actually an indicator of what could be a more serious matter, so, yeah, we keep a good record of threats against others.

All right, you’re leaving in a couple of weeks, so this is your exit interview with us. You do have five targets in your annual report that you’re working towards over the years. One of those is to reduce Maori reoffending by 25% by 2025, but it’s going up, not down according to the annual report, so what’s the plan to turn that around?

Well, actually, it’s tracking in almost the right direction. We in the New Zealand Police are determined to turn around the over-representation of Maori in the justice system, both as offenders and also as victims, so we have to work in partnership with others to make that happen, so we have made progress, but it’s a tough challenge. So we’re doing more and more in that space, bringing in more and more partners. We’re very positive about achieving that, but it will take more work.
Yeah, well, on this programme five years ago, you said that police force did have unconscious bias towards Maori. Is that part of the reason that reoffending rates really haven’t gone down that much?

Yeah, we’ve got to accept that that’s absolutely part of it. So we’ve got a programme to do what we can to remove bias from our organisation and remove bias from our decision making, so at an individual level and at an organisational level.

And that was five years ago. What have you done about it?

I can tell you it has moved, and a lot of our data in terms of how we apply our discretion will affirm that, so I can tell you that when we brought that in, the way we applied our discretion was not equal. I can tell you right now that the way we apply our discretion to European or non-Maori and Maori is equal. That’s not what we were. That’s good progress.

Well, let’s talk about the culture in the police force. The public trust at the moment is at an all-time high following March 15, but I wonder whether that’s being undermined by the fact that you currently have a police officer before the courts on a rape allegation. You also recently last year had that independent review into bullying. Is that public trust going to be undermined by these things?

Yeah, our public trust is really important, so it’s one of the key measures, and it’s from how you police that you build trust and confidence: that we know what we’re doing, we’re there for people. When we have incidents that are currently in the public domain, yes, absolutely, we know that that can damage trust and confidence, but what we also say are they are very isolated incidents, and they should not judge an organisation of 13,000 – soon to be 14,000 – by the actions of one or two. Our people do not stand for any behaviour like that.

Okay, another issue – you’ve just launched an internal corruption unit within the force. Is this an acknowledgement that organised crime is taking a foothold within the rank and file?

Look, we’re concerned that it could. This is about protecting our excellent reputation that you’ve already referred to and ensuring that we maintain that and protect the awesome people that work for the New Zealand Police. We’ve seen offshore where—and we know, organized crime will attempt to get inside law enforcement to get information that will assist them in their misdeeds. We want to protect our people to ensure that we get ahead of it. It’s a proactive measure, but we’re not naïve to think that may not occur, but we want to be ahead of it.

So part of that organised crime are the gangs in New Zealand. The opposition leader, Simon Bridges, has had a campaign targeting gangs. Is that necessary, and are gangs more powerful now than when you became commissioner six years ago?

There are more people involved in organised crime than when there were when I came in as commissioner. It’s due to

Is that a failure on the police’s behalf? Why has that gone up?

It’s an international, global… effect, often… leveraged by the amount of illicit drugs that are in the market. That attracts organised crime. Plus we’ve been pretty open about the fact that some of these returning deportees that are coming back from Australia are bringing their illicit drug trafficking networks with them. They also bring their modus operandi. And we’re really focused on intervening there at the high end, but at the same time, we want to work in communities to prevent the harms that gangs and organised crime might do. We would if we could stop young people from being attracted to and joining that life.

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