Brian Edwards Media

It’s Time for Greg O’Connor to Stop Defending the Indefensible


I have been wanting to say this for a long time. Police Association President, Greg O’Connor does himself and the police officers he represents a grave disservice by assuming the role of Counsel for the Defence with every complaint or criticism that is levelled against his members. I use the word ‘every’ advisedly, since I honestly cannot remember an occasion when I have heard Mr O’Connor admit that the police had got it wrong or when he failed to present a rationale or excuse for their behaviour. The result is that the currency of his argument is debased. No sensible person believes that the police are without flaw or that they always get it right. Yet that essentially seems to be  Mr O’Connor’s position.  Today’s news provides an example.

The just-released report of the Independent Police Complaints Authority into the 2006 police-cell beating of Rawiri Falwasser found the actions of the four police officers involved ‘unnecessary, unreasonable and unjustified’. Falwassser, arrested for unlawfully taking a car, had refused to have his fingerprints taken or sign a Bill of Rights form. When he refused to be moved to another cell, he was subjected to a 20-minute beating by the officers and pepper-sprayed 65 times. Stuff reporter Ian Steward takes up the story:

‘They sprayed the burning mist into his cell through vents until a doctor who attended said he could not see Falwasser through the haze.

‘Falwasser received a 6-cm cut to his head and later said he thought he would die of suffocation from the pepper-spray.

‘His vision was blurred and he felt as if his face was burning. He later described it as feeling like hot water being poured over his body but without any physical burns.

‘For several weeks after the incident he suffered from headaches and dizziness and years later he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress over the incident.’ 

A jury found the four officers not guilty of assault in 2008, but Falwasser was awarded $30,000 by a High Court judge earlier this year in compensation for breach of his human rights.

An internal  disciplinary tribunal also found the officers guilty of misconduct.

In today’s finding, IPCA Chair Justice Lowell Goddard said the use of force was unjustified, and the type of force unnecessary and unreasonable.

‘There was no urgent need to move Mr Falwasser. He should have been left in the holding cell till he had calmed down and agreed to provide fingerprints. The use of an escalating and inordinate amount of pepper spray simply exacerbated the situation.’

This is how Greg O’Connor responded to the IPCA’s findings, as reported by Stuff.

Police Association president Greg O’Connor said in hindsight it was easy to think how the officers should have reacted.

“Unfortunately the police do not have hindsight or time when they deal with serious situations like this.”

The four officers were trying to resolve a very difficult situation as best they could, he said.

“In hindsight they may acted differently but at the time they were doing what they thought was best.”

Well, hindsight be buggered. No one who saw the CCTV footage on television of these four mean beating  Falwasser and pumping so much pepper spray into the cell that a doctor found it impossible to see through the haze, would have needed hindsight to know that this was police brutality, pure and simple. Falwasser was treated like a caged animal. It was simply horrifying to watch.

Nor, as Justice Goddard notes, was the situation particularly serious, until the beating and pepper-spraying began. It became serious then.

As for Mr O’Connor’s suggestion that ‘at the time’ the officers ‘were doing what they though best’, it has no credence whatsoever. Indeed, given the findings of the police’s own disciplinary tribunal and the IPCA’s report, it merely adds insult to injury.

Finally, Mr O’Connor says he hopes this will be ‘the final chapter’ for everyone involved. It will certainly not be the final chapter for Mr Falwasser, still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the incident.

As President of the Police Association it is Greg O’Connor’s job to look after the interests of police officers in this country. No doubt he does it well. But  it is not his job to defend the indefensible. And it is not in the best interests of his members.

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  1. Absolutely spot on Brian.

    We have to remember that Greg O’Connor first and foremost is the chief union advocate for the police. He will always promote police interests above, say, national interests – it’s what he’s paid to do.

  2. Well said! I appreciate that the police often take a lot of abuse and frequently need defending – but, as you say, that doesn’t mean that that need extend to every single time.

    Reminds me a bit of the teachers’ unions, who’d have you believe that “every teacher is a good teacher.” As most of us know from tHE personal experience of our own schooldays, or that of our children, that’s simply not true.

  3. All I can say is that Greg O’Connor should think about taking up the top post at the Chinese, Iranian or North Korean police associations.

    Their police men dont have to worry about scrutiny of their conduct in the slightest.

  4. Hi Brian – I agree – Greg doesn’t help himself or the police at large when he defends everything they do. Of course we’re all wise with hindsight, but police officers can’t afford that luxury I’m afraid. What were they thinking? One of him confined and doing nothing – four of them and not one of them with the good sense to say no? There are some real issues there – probably not enough sweets when they were little!

  5. Whoa, people. Greg O’Connor, President of not only the New Zealand Police Union, but also president of the world confederation of police unions (and you don’t get to be that without a sycophantic media) is only doing what his members ask of him. After all, he has been president of the NZ police union for well over 10 years. A salary competitive with that of the actual police commissioner would be an incentive and he is helped enormously to retain his position because he is the “go to” person for every lazy journalist in this country whenever any issue affecting the police attracts their attention. Leaving aside his inexplicably poor command of the English language (or perhaps it is precisely this that attracts the unkind and uncharitable in the journalistic confraternity – and I avoid the word “profession” deliberately) he attracts headlines. The reason, I suspect, is that too many people, and I hope, Brian, that you don’t want to be included in this, think that Greg IS the police spokesman. He isn’t, of course. But that being the case, why, Brian, are you so cranked about O’Connor’s comments? You would be justifiably stirred up if commissioner Howard Broad were on the front page of The Dominion expressing these views. Whoops. A question. Will Commissioner Broad even be in any of the papers on this topic tomorrow. No? Probably not. Why not? Because he has more sense, one assumes, than to respond inanely to every deadbeat journo who has his phone number? The world would be a better place if journo’s pretended that Greg didn’t exist. The independent authority has expressed a reasoned and sensible judgment. The “go to” should have been Howard Broad. If he chose to accept the authority’s determination, shouldn’t that have been the end of it? Why are we we getting wound up over a journo’s desire to “create” some conflict? What do other police think of this? Why not ask a few? Greg O’Connor doesn’t count for sod all. Chill, brother.

  6. I am not going to defend some of the more questionable actions of the police, however, their “union” is like no other – they can’t strike, their protestations are very limited and as long as the media beat up the reputation of the police for every reported misdemeanour, many members of the public will continue to develop a general disrespect for this organisation. The culture within the Police probably needs to change,however that process will be an evolutionary one as the misguided ones leave the force. Like any work situation, there will always be employees who fall below the expected standard, even within the media. While I’m ranting a bit, I’m not sure how teachers got dragged into this debate Kate? I have a couple of good friends who are long time teachers and they reliably inform me that 100s of middle aged teachers have had enough teacher bashing from the media, general public and the government that there will probably be quite a lot of resignations in the next year or so. Generalisations in the mass media.Another disrespected profession. Why would any right minded, intelligent young person want to go into teaching I say, but who will teach your kids?

  7. With respect I do not think you fully appreciate Greg O’Connor’s role. He is elected and paid to represent the rights and interests of police officers. The actions of these officers may well have been reprehensible. For this it is likely that they will face internal disciplinary action.

    It would be totally wrong for GO to make any public statement critical of these officers that may prejudice any subsequent disciplinary action. Even if no furher action is to be taken it is not GO’s place to make individual criticism. If I were a serving police officer I would applaud Mr O’Connor’s actions. If he acted in any other way I would be looking for a replacement.

    His role is not dissimilar to that of Judith Ablett Kerr who attracted much ill informed criticism for the way she conducted the defence of Clayton Wetherston.

    Finally I have heard GO speak out on many occasions condemning police officers whose actions have brought the force into disrepute. Privately he may feel that this is such a case but he must be seen by his members to support these officers at least publicly.

  8. It definitely disturbs me everytime I hear it.Unions represent their employees contractual work agreements.Blindly defending poor work practice should not be part of their responsibility.Finding agreeable ways to address the issues should be the extent of their influence.
    As for pepper spray,I was stopped for a minor traffic infringement ($30.00 fine)and disagreed with the officers insinuation.I exited my vehicle to speak to him on the sidewalk(talking in a busytraffic area did not seem sensible.As soon as I exited (I am a short ,small person)he withdrew his pepper spray and offered to spray me as I stood beside the roadside of my car on a busy road,I neither threatened him verbally or physically yet he was prepared to pepper spray me on the side of a busy road.I stayed at least 3 metres from him as he called up reinforcements to have me arrested.I awaited their arrival and 2 police cars raced to his aid. A short lady officer approached me and asked what the problem was. I explained to her he had stopped the wrong car and that was the extent of it.I requested my licence returned (he’d locked it in his car and refused to return it)she returned it and end of story.This could have escalated into me being pepper sprayed and possibly run over due to an officious and ill disciplined officer.As soon as I read the finding I had no doubt an indefensible
    element continues to exist within police supported by both the union and management.

  9. @Alex – not ALL teachers are good teachers, just as not all police officers are good officers – as per the instance highlighted by Brian’s blog post. That’s not to say that many, indeed most, officers, teachers and other occupations don’t do a good or even great job. But – unlike some unions – I don’t have to believe that every last one of them is good at their job. I’ve had some great teachers, and a few poor ones (one of whom was later fired for her bad behaviour). That’s not a ‘media beat up’. If you had no dud teachers in the whole of your time in education, then lucky you; lots of other people can’t say the same. Oh, and by the way – two of my close friends are teachers too.

  10. Ben – so you are saying no matter how bad an employee is, not matter what they do they should be defended to the death by the union?? Geez and old greg wonders why we dont want these people armed…

  11. I feel, a bit, for Greg O’Connor. The Police, under Howard Broad, have had many catastrophic operational failures — to resemble any Keystone Kops’ antics. And speaking of “Keystone”, herewith, are a few intertextual touchstones to illustrate said farce:

    Baby Pumpkin: Mother’s body liquefying in the boot of husband’s car. Police leave it alone, because they feel it might impede with the workings of the press, whom, are lounging around — and over — it.
    The Shot South Auckland Liquor Shop Owner: Police decamp at a “safe distance”, while owner’s life ebbs away; despite being advised — by people in the shop — that the offenders have fucked off.
    Napier Shooting: The NZ Herald reports the outcome, while op-commander is scratching his head, ruminating what to do, next. Female police, kms away, directing traffic, are packing side arms. WTF!?
    Hain Ave. Surveillance Botch-Up. The property was ALWAYS going to be wired-up, for detection. (Yeah, there was police backup. But they were back at the station, having their second cup of coffee).
    Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Comes to the N.W Motorway: with the resultant tragedy. Prior to that — we saw, on TV, armed police trying to shoot a darting runaway dog. The traces of all the bullets fired, resembled the spectrograph of a demented man’s brain scan. Any wonder, as to what occurred, some time after that?
    NZ’s Very Own 9/ll Thwarted: with the busting of a few heavyset and unfit Maoris, who regressed back to their childhood days by enacting their pantominic incarnation of Cowboys-and-Indians, in the Urewera Ranges. Howie orders a phalanx of AOS into full Ninja Turtle regalia, to underscore the gravity of the threat to our country’s security. (Yeah, we gets it Howie. Thanks, bro, for fostering positive Maori-Pakeha race relations).
    The author’s vid-clip of the peppering-and-tasering is, by extension, ancillary to the litany of failures, as described.

    The Police are waaay over-micromanaged by Howard and his top lieutenants. Greg knows that. And he’s become the “fall guy”: not so much for the Police at the coalface, but for their top commanders.

    Howard has to manage the public’s perception as to how it will be received. Greg — and the likes of Noreen Hegarty — has to interpret and articulate these perceptions, for palatable public consumption. It’s not his burden to carry.

  12. I couldn’t agree more with you Brian.

    In general, I think our police do a good job in what are very often difficult situations.

    So if Greg O’Connor was really an advocate for police, he ought to be distancing the rest of the force from the actions of these 4 bullies. Not lining up behind them and giving the impression that all police see this kind of viciousness and abuse of power as just a bit ‘unfortunate in hindsight’.

    In reality, Greg O’Connor is an advocate for kneejerk defensiveness and the sound of his own voice.

  13. What I am saying Kerry is that GO should do what he is paid to do. There are more than enough people all too ready to criticise the police without GO having to add his voice. I doubt very much whether he would remain in his job very long if he did act as you wish.

    If I face disciplinary action at work, the last thing I want is my representative shooting his mouth off in public criticising my actions regardless of his private views.

    I imagine that you were one of those who became hysterical at Judith Ablett Kerr doing the best for her client no matter how ‘bad’ he was.

  14. Brian, you are right on the button. True, Greg O’Connor is paid to represent all police, but defending the indefensible reduces public respect for the force. Most annoying are the occasions when complaints about the actions of particular cops are treated as though the integrity of the entire force is being impugned. We need policemen we can trust, men with commonsense, capability and integrity. And slightly off subject, on the occasions police are armed, we need then to be able to use their weapons with accuracy and confidence. One of the shocking things about the tragic shooting of a bystander on the northern motorway was the number of bullets that hit nothing. I think there were 18 shots fired in total. The banging away at an apparently harmless dog in a suburban street would be funny in any other context. Mr O’Connor did the police no service by saying cops aren’t trained to shoot at moving targets. (Why not?) So why shoot at all if you are not confident of hitting your target? This was a built up area in fading light. If my kids did something like that I’d confiscate their air gun and ground them for a very long time.

  15. Lettice, you appear to be another one who is under the misapprehension that the police association is some form of watchdog for police standards. Go to the website and see what they actually do.

    Whilst it may be distasteful that Greg O’Connor appears to defend the indefensibe it is no more distasteful than a lawyer defending the indefensible.

    The role of Greg O’Connor and the association also serves to balance the ill informed criticism of those like you who get your opinions from the media and from You Tube and have never been in the situation of having to make an instant decision that may result in your death or the death of an innocent member of the public.

    The police are far from perfect and on the evidence of the video clip the behaviour of the Whakatane police officers was appalling. That does not mean however that GO has to add his voice to the baying of the mob.

    Finally it would be good if someone went and sought the opinion of serving police officers as to their expectations of Greg O’Connor and the Police Association.

  16. OK, OK, OK, — we all know the Police, done wrong. We know’d it. But, I’ll bet you my collection of crotcheted doilies — that, Rawiri Falwasser would, happily, put himself through that “torture ordeal”, again, in the time it would take him to say: “Zap me, long ‘n’ hard, bro” — if, it meant he could scoop up another $30Ks’ worth-of-golden-eggs. Let’s just tai ho, a little, on the PC Outrage and Sympathy.

    “It will certainly not be the final chapter for Mr Falwasser, still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the incident”.
    That, the latest catchphrase for the next Tul billboard?

    For “Trev’s” and “Annie’s” benefit: The retort, needs the comma after “Yeah” to convey laconic cynicism. The comma is subtextual to the prima facie affirmation. No more S.A.Rs from you two.

  17. If I stole from my employer should my union say thats ok?To me this particular case is sufficiently black and white for there to be no defence.A justice system which allows a jury to find this behaviour acceptable seems morally bankrupt.I could never be sure Mr Falwasser didnt allow himself to be subjected to this treatment to secure a financial reward.I can be sure that the police officers in this instance showed a lack of control in subjecting Mr Falwasser to their personal policing methods.I find nothing PC about an abhorrence to physical abuse.To be entertained by this type of behavior doesnt belong in our society and definitely not in our police force.

  18. @Lettice: “The banging away at an apparently harmless dog in a suburban street would be funny in any other context. Mr O’Connor did the police no service by saying cops aren’t trained to shoot at moving targets”.

    That was a real, real Shocker. The — harmless — dog, was running scared. And we have these Out-Of-Garb Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, blazing-away in all directions, as if they were in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

    Did, Howard Broad, take measures to implement more vigorous firearms-training for his officers, after witnessing that eye-popping shit? Well, did he?

    We witnessed the tragic Epilogue to this farce, a few months later.

  19. “If I stole from my employer should my union say thats ok?”

    PJR if you did this you would still expect youe representative to defend you even though the case might appear black and white. you would expect the circumstances and mitigation to be considered. You would expect a plea of leniency.

    Privately your representative your representative might tell you that you are a thieving bastard who deserves to be locked up, but you would not expect him to say that puplicly while trying to defend you.

  20. I have been in a situation where this happened(more than once)The Union washed their hands of the employee and only ensured correct entitlements where paid out after the employee was removed from the building.Ironically the police were also called.

  21. Some mudders say: “he wuz ALWAYS a bad ‘un … I knew he’d come to no good!”
    Other mudders say: “Not my son! My son is a good boy, he was framed” (despite the row of decapitated heads in the fridge).

    On odds, I guess at best GO might be right 50% of the time.
    Yeah, right Merv … of course compensation after a 20 minute attack by a mob of thugs armed with batons and pepper spray is a tempting invitation to the cash strapped, I’m considering it myself … but Merv Bro’, do I need Maori blood to qualify? Is that what you’re saying matey?

    These men were no longer acting as police officers defending law and order, they’d reverted to common thugs with testosterone poisoning – they bring shame to the police force and to their trainers.

    I bet GO gets more than $30K for his ability to adopt an intractably defensive posture, his ‘job description’ is, perhaps, the equivalent of a school principal stoutly defending the teacher accused of sexual assault on a pupil.
    GO has scant credibility – he constantly appears to defend the indefensible on some principle of loyalty beyond sanity.

  22. @ LittleToot: Greg’s not so much excusing the conduct of the officers as he’s explaining it as best he can. Given the strictures imposed upon him, implicit as well as explicit. But as I’ve said, Greg has an unenviable job. Which, is to unfailingly obey the imperatives in the role of Police spokesman. And sometimes, it requires putting on a brave face to defend the so-called “indefensible”. While he doesn’t exactly function in a job vacuum, it comes as close as it gets to that with the high level of self-enclosure required of him. Something, you put down as: “an intractably defensive posture”.

    When police conduct comes under public scrutiny
    and questions are asked of them, it’s Greg whom is the omnipresent one; not the Commissioner. (And I could never understand why). And he’s the one that’s made to appear unctuous, insensitive and oppressively justificatory.

    I see, Greg as being the whipping boy, not so much for the putative failings of the Police, but for the shortcomings of their commissioner (of
    which there are many). Greg operates on a preset default setting to conform to the unwritten convention, contingent upon his being the Police Association President: “Cover our Arses at all Times”. And he can’t be blamed for that.

    BTW: ” but Merv Bro’, do I need Maori blood to qualify? Is that what you’re saying matey?”
    Ironic, since you’re the one doing the syncoptic sociolinguistic mimicry (by your prologue).
    I’m already on record as saying: “Idioms — and the street vernacular — ‘is’ my first language”.

    Youse and I can still be mates.

  23. @BE – I agree. There is power in admitting when one, or one’s group, is in the wrong. In this case, the police were blatantly in the wrong and Greg should concede this if he is to be taken seriously.

    Also, (off-topic I know), Number 11 deliberately excludes journalism from the profession category. There seems to be some debate as to whether journalism is a profession or a trade. Perhaps a topic for a future post?


    I am a fan of any comma that conveys laconic cynicism.

  24. I am not going to defend some of the more questionable actions of the police, however, their “union” is like no other – they can’t strike, their protestations are very limited and as long as the media beat up the reputation of the police for every reported misdemeanour, many members of the public will continue to develop a general disrespect for this organisation.

    *sigh* And straight from the O’Connor playbook, any scrutiny or criticism of police is dismissed as a media “beat up” by “cop-haters”. Here’s a wet liberal notion, Alex, and you might want to retire to the fainting couch before reading any further.



    IF they can’t handle the degree of public scrutiny and accountability that comes with that responsiblity — and earns the extremely high levels of esteem the New Zealand Police enjoy — then they should quit and get into shopping mall security.

  25. Brian I am not sure if there are 8 or 9 cops in the 1:05 frame. Pack mentality like this is certainly indefensible.

  26. Spot on Brian – O’Connor just loves himself and the TV camera; he is self-righteous re. the police and the rest of us do our best to upset their lifestyles. He reminds me of Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons – clueless.