11 Jul 2019

Officer abused power by kneeing man in head - police watchdog

2:07 pm on 11 July 2019

The police watchdog has found a police officer grossly abused his power by intentionally and forcefully kneeing a man in the head twice during an arrest in South Auckland.

A report from the Independent Police Conduct Authority found the force used was excessive and unlawful. The officer was charged and pleaded guilty, but was discharged without conviction. He resigned from the police.

During the arrest another office deliberately stood on the arrested man's leg. He was sanctioned, and remains with the police.

In October 2016 the police were pursuing a man who had stolen a ute in Ramarama. He failed to stop for about 15 minutes, and twice drove the ute into police cars in an attempt to escape. The man eventually surrendered, got out of the ute with his hands up and lay on the ground.

The authority said video footage from the police helicopter showed one officer deliberately and forcefully kneed the man in the head, causing facial injuries and possibly knocking him unconscious.

"Officer A arrives at Mr X and deliberately and forcefully knees Mr X in the face as he lay prone on the ground. The two other officers reach Mr X, who still has his hands behind his back, and restrain him in handcuffs. Officer A can then be seen drawing his knee back and striking Mr X in the face a second time," the report said.

"Mr X was not threatening or using force against Officer A or the other officers on either occasion that Officer A kneed him. In fact, he was lying face down on the ground, with his hands behind his back, having surrendered and in a vulnerable position. Officer A's use of force was therefore completely unnecessary, and he had no justification for it under police policy or the law."

The police eventually charged the officer, who pleaded guilty to wounding with reckless disregard and was discharged without conviction in a district court. He has since resigned from the police.

"The Authority considers that Officer A's use of force against Mr X was intentional and gratuitous. It is especially concerned that the force was used when Mr X was in such a vulnerable position and considers this to be a gross abuse of power."

The officer refused to answer questions when interviewed by the IPCA.

"When asked to comment on this footage, Officer A replied 'I decline to answer any questions in relation to what occurred after I got out of the vehicle, and rely on my right not to answer any questions which might incriminate me', or variations of that statement. Officer A has provided no explanation for his use of force."

Arrested man was in a vulnerable position, judge says

Judge Colin Doherty, the chair of the IPCA, said it was an abuse of power.

"It was police having someone under their control; he had been detained at this stage or was in the process of detention, and he was vulnerable because of that. They had power over him and they effectively assaulted him. That is an abuse of power," he said.

The investigation found another officer stepped on the man's leg while he was being arrested, which was also found to be an unlawful use of force.

"It is clear from the Eagle footage that Officer B did this intentionally. There were no obstructions preventing Officer B from walking around Mr X and he could have stepped over Mr X had he wanted to," the report said.

"Until shown the Eagle footage, Officer B had no recollection of applying force to Mr X. However, when shown it he accepted responsibility for this. Officer B said there was no 'real reason' or necessity to use force on Mr X at that time, saying it was 'just in the heat of the moment I guess', and noting that it was a 'dumb thing to do'."

The officer received a sanction from the police after an employment investigation, and is still working. Neither officer filed a report about their use of force at the time, but took the man to hospital for treatment.

The police initially investigated the matter itself, and decided the complaint should not be upheld. But after seeing the footage from the police Eagle helicopter and getting more information about the complaint, the IPCA decided it should investigate the complaint independently. The Authority has written to the Commissioner of Police, Mike Bush, about this.

It said the police's initial investigation was inadequate, but the subsequent investigation by the Criminal Investigation Branch was thorough.

In a statement, the police accepted the findings that two of their officers unlawfully used force, and that their initial investigation was not good enough.

"The public has high expectations on our police staff and we strive to meet that expectation every day. The actions undertaken by the two officers did not meet those expectations and police took appropriate action to address this behaviour," said Superintendent Jill Rogers.