I was shocked and saddened to read the news that a New Zealand Police Officer has died after an incident in the Police cells at Nuku’alofa Police Station. It is a tragedy for his family, a tragedy for Tonga and in particular the Tonga Police. I cannot comment on the specific facts of the case but it does raise real concerns about progress within the law and justice sector in Tonga. During my three year term we (Police, Justice & Government) introduced the new Police Act which sets out the legal obligations of police officers to their community.
We introduced a Code of Conduct and trained every officer in it to ensure they knew their responsibilities and accountabilities. We changed the liquor laws to reduce alcohol abuse and introduced new road safety laws particularly in relation to drink driving. These changes were important for the reforms within the law and justice sector which the government believed was necessary and it was my mandate to implement. I tackled the important issue of professional standards within the police and it met with resistance from some sections of the police. During my time we received at least 270 complaints against police over the three years, 40 of those related to allegations of violence by police.
We put a number before the court, at least one officer went to jail for assaulting a prisoner in the cells while he was handcuffed. We put 16 officers before the criminal court, 4 before the tribunal process and 11 officers went to civil court. I sincerely hope we have not regressed since my departure 12 months ago but the current situation is one of real concern as it appears to revolve around alcohol, the actions of police officers and the lack of care and protection for a person taken into custody.
There is an expectation, a duty of care if you like that people taken into custody, for whatever reason will receive that care and protection, not only from other prisoners but themselves in respect of self harm and the unlawful actions of those required to look after them in custody, they are guardians of the people, ‘tauhi’ if you like. Complaints about the police during my time identified a culture of old style physical policing methods which are neither appropriate nor legal for Tonga today. These type of incidents have occurred in other countries including Australia and New Zealand but over the last three to four years substantial time, effort and money has been put into improving the quality of policing in Tonga and the police service must buy into it.
It is tragic that it has taken an incident such as this to re-highlight the issues and thus re-evaluate reform progress. A small number within the Tonga police still struggle with change, still cling to the old policing methods, still fail to take responsibility and so a young Tongan man has lost his life in a situation which in all likelihood could have been avoided if police officers had exercised a duty of care. Public confidence is vital to the effective operation of the police, I recall saying that I want all Tongans to be assured that they are safe in their homes, on the roads and in their workplaces.
I believed that was happening and most of our officers were 100% behind it, some have still to grasp a simple democratic principle. Can I finish by saying I miss Tonga, I miss the people and I miss the police service.
We can do better.
Tonga’s Former Police Commissioner