Independent police investigation welcomed

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An independent police watchdog group has slammed a decision by the Department of Conservation (Doc) not to charge two out-of-town officers with unlawful hunting, but has welcomed an independent investigation into the police handling of the incident.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) last week announced an independent investigation into the police handling of the alleged illegal hunting in Central Otago by two off-duty out-of-town officers.

Four complaints about the police handling of the case were lodged with the IPCA and all the complainants were notified by the IPCA last week that an investigator had been appointed.

Shannon Parker, who is the president of watchdog group the New Zealand Police Conduct Association, which jointly made one of the IPCA complaints, said it was significant the IPCA had announced it would independently investigate the matter. Most IPCA complaints against police were investigated by police themselves, with oversight by the IPCA, and only a small percentage were investigated by the IPCA itself, she said.

“Clearly they [the IPCA] have looked over this file and have enough concerns that they feel this [an independent investigation] is a necessary step.”

But she criticised the Doc decision not to charge the officers, as well as the earlier decision by police not to charge the officers for alleged poaching on to a farmer’s property.

“It could easily be perceived that the hard-nosed stance police and Doc have previously claimed they take on poaching doesn’t apply to police staff. It is disappointing and doesn’t look good for Doc or the police.”

Police announced in September they would not lay charges against the officers, despite the Wild Animal Control Act saying if someone was found in an area where wild animals were present, and the person had something they could hunt with, they were presumed to be hunting unless the opposite could be proved.

Two Christchurch officers, Senior Constable Gary Donnelly and Senior Constable Dougal Adams, were found spotlighting from a road on to a Central Otago farmer’s property on January 21. The officers said they had been looking for deer but denied intending to hunt. Both officers also admitted at the scene to having just been spotlighting on a Department of Conservation (Doc) block. Spotlighting on Doc blocks is illegal, and the officers did not have a valid permit to hunt on Doc land.

Ms Parker said it was vital both the alleged poaching by the off-duty officers and the police handling of the case, including the actions of the two Central Otago officers who attended the incident, were investigated. An Alexandra officer and a senior Cromwell officer attended the incident but neither followed police policy, failing to check the off-duty officers’ vehicle, confiscate their guns or take statements from them.

The Cromwell officer’s statement about the incident said Snr Const Donnelly was merely spotlighting to show his 12-year-old daughter a deer.

However, trespass notices later served on all four members of the group by two farmers show the daughter is in fact 26 years old.

Ms Parker said she had informed the IPCA of this and hoped it would form part of its investigation.

And she said a warning from Doc Central Otago operations manager Mike Tubbs that other hunters need to make sure they had a valid permit before hunting on conservation land was a double standard. To not charge the officers, but then say Doc continued to take unlawful hunting seriously, was a contradiction, she said.

Mr Tubbs said Doc had concluded there was sufficient evidence that Snr Const Donnelly and Snr Const Adams had committed an offence, but the department had decided not to prosecute “based on a range factors”.

They included the fact the men made early admissions and there were no animals shot on conservation land, and that the men had not posed a danger to other members of the public and had no record of previous offending.

But Doc made a general warning to hunters.

“We take unlawful hunting seriously. In this case it was deemed the incident was at the low end of the scale and the likelihood of similar offending was extremely low. However, hunters are warned if they are found to be breaking the rules and putting people at risk the department will take action,” Mr Tubbs said.

The farmer whose land is at the centre of the incident, a neighbouring farmer and Federated Farmers Otago have also laid complaints with the IPCA about the police handling of the incident, and the two farmers have also taken out trespass orders against the officers involved in the incident and the other two occupants of the vehicle.