Poaching case draws fourth complaint

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Federated Farmers Otago has laid a complaint with the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) about the police handling of alleged poaching by their own in Central Otago, as more criticism and information about the incident comes to light.

It is the fourth complaint about the case to be lodged with the IPCA, following concerns about the out-of-town, off-duty officers receiving special treatment because they were policemen.

Police announced last month they would not prosecute the officers for the January incident, saying there was insufficient evidence, despite the officers having been seen spotlighting from a road on to a private property and having firearms in their vehicle.

The officers actually told farmers and on-duty police officers at the incident, and in subsequent statements, that they had just been spotlighting in a nearby Department of Conservation (Doc) area and were then looking for deer on the private property, although they denied they were hunting on the private property.

Spotlighting on Doc land is illegal, and the officers did not have a permit to hunt on the land at that time. A separate Doc inquiry into that incident is still under way and Doc is refusing to comment.

When asked for comment, a police spokesman provided no new comment, and emailed a copy of a previous police response that said there was insufficient evidence to press charges over the incident involving private land and no comment could be made about the Doc matter.

Federated Farmers Otago central high country representative and Otago executive member Andrew Paterson said Federated Farmers had made the IPCA complaint because the incident was so serious, and the organisation was asking for the decision not to prosecute the officers to be reviewed. Poaching threatened public safety and farm operations, and a public uproar about the police handling of this case could affect the otherwise good police work done to combat poaching in the area, he said.

Recent new information revealed about the case was disturbing.

The police file about the case, obtained by the farmer whose land is at the centre of the incident, shows both the Alexandra police officer who was first on the scene and the senior Cromwell police officer who also attended because it involved police officers failed to check the firearms found in the officers’ vehicles and did not confiscate them.

The police file also shows neither of the two officers accused of the poaching was formally interviewed at the scene. They were not asked to provide statements until almost three months after the incident, and it was another month before the statements were provided.

Police notes show the statements came through the accused’s lawyer, and one of the officers, Senior Constable Gary Donnelly, of Christchurch, had “not made himself available for interview”. The other officer in the vehicle was Senior Constable Dougal Adams, also of Christchurch. A civilian and a child were also in the vehicle.

Mr Paterson said the information was disappointing and farmers still thought there had been a cover-up and the officers were not being charged because they were police.

The farmer whose land is at the centre of the issue, who prefers not to be named, said he still felt “fobbed off” and let down by police.

Another Central Otago farmer, Steve Brown, said police had previously done great work trying to stamp out poaching in Central Otago, but he was disappointed with the actions of the two Central Otago officers who had attended the incident and not searched the vehicle, confiscated the firearms or interviewed the suspects.

“They didn’t do their job and that’s quite disappointing . . . this has been a cover up from the very beginning.”

FARMERS FEEL LET DOWN BY MEETING

A meeting between farmers and police about the handling of a case of alleged police poaching “did not go well” and the farmers feel further fobbed off and let down, they say.

The farmer whose land is at the centre of the incident, another farmer, Steve Brown, and Federated Farmers Otago executive member Andrew Paterson met Otago Lakes Central area commander Inspector Olaf Jensen, southern police district professional conduct manager Richard Bourne and Alexandra Sergeant Derek Ealson about two weeks ago.

Mr Paterson said Sgt Ealson was mainly an observer at the meeting, which was dominated by Mr Bourne.

Mr Paterson said one of the officers acknowledged the two out-of-town officers had been hunting on Department of Conservation land, but otherwise the officers kept saying the out-of-town officers had only been “looking over the fence with a torch” on to private land on the way back from hunting elsewhere, and no shots were fired or carcasses found.

However, the Wild Animal Control Act clearly stated that if someone was found with firearms in an area where there were wild animals, they were presumed to be hunting unless they could prove otherwise, Mr Paterson said.

“We told them [Jensen and Bourne] that they’ve let us down – the farmers and the local police – by letting them [the out-of-town officers] get away.”

It was a concern that the out-of-town officers had “put themselves above the law”, and farmers and local police needed to keep working hard to maintain the otherwise positive relationship they had, Mr Paterson said.

EXCERPTS FROM POLICE FILE ON THE CASE OF THE ALLEGED POLICE POACHING

“There was a spotlight being held out of one of the right hand side windows [of the accused’s vehicle]. As soon as they realised we were there that spotlight got switched off. When the light was shining out, it was shining directly on to [name of farmer] paddock . . . I asked what they were up to and the driver stated they were spotlighting for deer. He said ‘we saw some here last night and we were just looking for them’. “ – from January statement of farmer who found the alleged poachers.

“There were two firearms visible, one in the front … and one in the back … I never checked any of the firearms as all stated they were unloaded and given the location of the firearms I believed this. I was invited to check them but common sense told me they were telling the truth.” – from January and May statements of Alexandra officer who was first on the scene at the incident.

“I was told the hunters were off duty police officers from Canterbury. Due to the public interest and risks involved I decided to attend this incident to ensure it was dealt with correctly.” – from March statement of senior Cromwell officer who also attended the incident.

“I spoke to [officer] Gary Donnelly, he stated they had been hunting [in another area] … He explained that they had returned from hunting. They had shot nothing and were using the spotlight to show [a child] some deer they had previously seen in the lucerne paddock … Gary Donnelly stated they had a Doc permit … I instructed [the other Alexandra officer] to photograph it. The permit had expired … I did not seize the firearms as it was not clear at this time there had been an offence committed.” – further excerpt from Cromwell officer’s March statement.

“When we arrived at the [Doc] hunting block we parked in the parking area beside the gate and walked into the block. We stayed there till dark then after walking out and storing the firearms correctly in the car again we headed back … It is a remote rural area with no lighting and we had a spotlight in the vehicle to help with opening and closing gates which [is] not easy in the dark … We had no intention of shooting anything on private land or farm land … no firearms were out of the windows … no shots fired … When police arrived from Alexandra and Cromwell I told him where we had been and when asked if I had a permit I told him I did not.” – from May statement of Senior Constable Gary Donnelly.

“The suspected parties involved on the night stated that they were spotlighting the paddock in question to show [a child] a deer … in the absence of this excuse there appears to be a ‘prima facie’ case of unlawful hunting … The parties involved were not found on Doc land; however there was a spontaneous admission from [Senior Constable] Douglas Adams.” – from February statement of a senior Alexandra officer.

“The landowner has voiced his concerns to media over his perceptions in lack of investigation into this incident, inferring it could have something to do with police staff being involved … There is criticism that can be levelled at police in the time it has [taken] to get the file for forwarding for Christchurch … There will be followup as to the delay.” – from March report of senior Otago Lakes officer.

“On 19 April 2016 Adams, [redacted] and Donnelly were notified by letter of the complaint [of the landowner] and requested to make statements … On 19 May 2016 the solicitor acting for the two Constables has responded to the allegation making submissions in his letter and attaching three statements.” – from May report by senior Christchurch officer.