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Police bullying: Confirmed by independent authority

Former Wairarapa Police officer John Woodward. PHOTO/FILE

A former Wairarapa Police officer and whistleblower is hoping a new report confirming significant bullying within New Zealand Police will lead to positive change.

The ‘Bullying, Culture and Related Issues in New Zealand Police’ report was made public last week by the Independent Police Conduct Authority and noted “significant elements of bullying in some workplaces, and a related negative culture”.

IPCA Judge Colin Doherty said evidence suggested bullying was likely confined to particular individuals, workplaces, and districts.

“However, it was sufficiently prevalent to give rise to concern and points to the pressing need for real change in management and organisational practice.”

Former Wairarapa police officer John Woodward, who spoke to the Times-Age in 2019 about bullying within the force, said the report “couldn’t be any more accurate”.

Woodward left the force in 2017, after years of alleged bullying and petty behaviour.

At the time, he had been labelled a “nark” by colleagues for speaking out against “boy’s club” behaviour, he said.

While he was no longer in the force, it was clear some of the bullying behaviour had continued, he said.

The report categorised the negative aspects of police culture into seven themes: lack of diversity of thought, favouritism and protectionism, marginalisation and ostracism, abusive and intimidatory conduct, sexist and racist behaviour, inappropriate office culture, and lack of empathy and caring.

One of the issues had been a lack of clear and effective processes to deal with complaints, Woodward said.

Staff were only able to complain to their direct superior, who would then decide whether to progress the issue.

“If he or she doesn’t approve it, it doesn’t go anywhere,” Woodward said.

This view was supported by the report, which found almost all of the 200 present and former staff interviewed had no trust and confidence in the existing mechanisms.

One change suggested by Woodward was to reconsider the term ‘bullying’, which gave people the impression of “big, tough kids” picking on the little guy.

“There’s certainly no one I was physically scared of.”

Another idea was to have those who had previously been bullied on an advisory panel to the IPCA.

“Unless they’ve been through that, they have no idea,” Woodward said, “If you’re serious about righting it, right it properly.”

Management staff either needed more training, or human resource counterparts need to take over some responsibilities, he said.

“Front line sergeants deal with everything. Most of them are pretty good, but they have no training in HR management.

“They’ve got enough to do.”

No specific recommendations were made in the report, as a 2019 independent review led police to initiate an action plan, which was still under way.

The IPCA would work with police to incorporate the new findings into the current plan, and monitor progress.

Woodward was careful to point out many police staff were not involved with the bullying culture.

“One thing I’ve been trying to push is that 99 per cent of frontline staff are absolutely brilliant,” he said.

“We’re talking about a minority – they shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush.”

He hoped the report’s findings would lead to a better culture within the police force.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster welcomed the report, which gave a deeper understanding of where the organisation needed to focus its efforts.

“A positive culture is fundamental to effective policing. How police staff work with each other and how we support one another impacts on how we serve the public,” he said.

“We know we can do better.”

While the IPCA reported bullying was not pervasive within the police, Coster said the negative behaviours described had “absolutely no place”.

Last month, police introduced a new approach to bullying based on the principles of restorative justice, Coster said.

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