A landmark private prosecution for murder has resulted in the acquittal of a
New Zealand police constable after a three-week trial shortly before
Christmas. The prosecution was brought by Jim Wallace, the father of Steven
Wallace, a 23-year-old Maori gunned down by police in an early morning
incident in the rural township of Waitara in 2000.
This was the first time
in the country’s legal history that a police shooting has been opened up to
such public scrutiny. As soon as the verdict was announced, the Police
Commissioner, with the support of the Police Association and opposition
politicians, called for changes to the law to exempt the police from
private prosecutions and to provide for the automatic suppression of the names
of police officers involved in shootings.
The case only proceeded after a two-year legal battle. An internal
investigation carried out by the Police Complaints Authority initially
exonerated Constable Keith Abbott, a 48-year-old policeman with over 20 years’
experience. After mortgaging their house and launching a public appeal
for funds, the Wallace family gathered sufficient resources to force a
deposition hearing in January 2002.
The hearing was presided over by two local Justices of the Peace—one a
businessman, the other a farmer—who dismissed the case, declaring that the
police had acted in self-defence. On appeal, however, Chief Justice Sian Elias
decided that the JPs had overstepped their authority and ruled last June that
a prima facie case existed for a jury trial.
Steven Wallace was shot in the early hours of April 30, 2000. He had been
confronted in the main street of Waitara by Abbott, the local police chief and
member of the Armed Offenders Squad, accompanied by a second armed constable.
They were called to the scene after Wallace smashed the windscreen of a police
car during a window-breaking spree. Abbott shot Wallace four times. The first
two shots seriously injured the victim’s arms. The third, which lodged in the
liver, was according to a pathologist’s report, the fatal shot. A fourth
entered Wallace’s back as he turned and fell to the ground.
John Rowan QC, lawyer for the Wallace family, told the court that the
“last, ultimate and lethal option” was the first and only one that Abbott
took. He and his fellow officer, Jason Dombroski, had hastily grabbed their
pistols from the Waitara police station. New Zealand police do not carry
weapons as a matter of course, but have ready access to pistols that are kept
at local stations. Within a minute of approaching Wallace in the town’s main
street, Abbott had shot him. The prosecution argued there was no reason for
firing so many shots at a person who did not have a projectile weapon. “If he
[Abbott] had stopped and assessed after the first or second shot, Steven
Wallace would still be alive today,” said Rowan.
In fact, there was no justification for the police to shoot Wallace at all.
Abbott and other officers rushed to the scene and fired on Wallace, with
little or no consideration of any alternative course of action. Although a
call had been put through for a dog unit, which was only 10 minutes away,
there was no attempt to contain or subdue him by other means. The police
outnumbered Wallace three-to-one, but Abbott took no steps to direct the two
other constables in a coordinated approach. There was only the briefest of
discussions, which included a reference to Wallace being a
“nutcase”—indicating the police had already ruled out reasoning with the young
Four former police officers were called as prosecution witnesses at the
deposition stage to give expert evidence on alternative procedures. All were
highly critical of the police actions and pointed to other options, including
the use of batons and pepper spray. The four were subsequently vilified by the
Police Association as “card carrying members” of the “disaffected ex-coppers
club” and accused in the Sunday Star Times of being failed officers
with dubious records.
Their testimony was, however, supported by two overseas witnesses. One, a
retired German police officer, said there was no need, under any
circumstances, for a police officer to draw a gun on an offender who was not
armed with one. In such a case, where “only property” had been damaged, a
“reasonable police officer” had to take time and not react impulsively. There
was no need, he said, to present a gun in an “aggressive, irrational manner”.
Abbott claimed he was in imminent danger and had shot in self-defence. His
defence lawyer painted a picture of Wallace as “mad, crazed, dangerous and
possessed with devils in his head”. He had woken neighbours by hitting a golf
club on a shed then driven to town and begun smashing windows. His mother, who
was concerned about her son’s erratic behaviour, rang the emergency number but
aborted the call.
Wallace was obviously agitated but how much a threat he posed is not clear.
Abbott claimed that Wallace, who was armed with a softball bat, made “a
beeline” towards him and ignored a verbal warning and a warning shot. Abbott
said his escape route was cut off and he fired in the belief that Wallace was
about to smash his head “to a pulp”. However, testimony from two witnesses
contradicted the police version of events. One—a taxi-driver—confirmed that
Wallace approached the two policemen, but he did not agree that their line of
retreat was about to be cut off.
Blame the victim
In a crude attempt to blame the victim, the defence claimed that Wallace
wanted to die. Abbott’s lawyer told the jury that the young man “decided that
life was not worth living and he employed the services of the New Zealand
police to die.” No evidence was offered to indicate that Wallace was suicidal.
Nor did the defence explain, why, even if Wallace wanted to end his life, the
police were obliged to kill him.
The police also conducted a poll of 77 Waitara businesses to see if they
had ever had any “difficulty” with the Wallace family. The judge overruled
this attempt at vilification, declaring that such a “survey” was utterly
irrelevant to the case and “contributed to the impression that the Wallace
family are on trial”
After deliberating for three hours, the jury found in Abbott’s favour.
Outside the court Wallace’s mother, clearly distraught at the verdict, said
that it opened the way for any person found breaking windows or committing
similar misdemeanors to be shot by police. She said it was a “sad day” for the
country, but was glad the prosecution had reached the courts and that it had
shown the “incompetence” of the police. She reiterated that Steven was a
“loving son”, who “wasn’t a bad person” and did not deserve to be killed.
The case has received significant coverage in the New Zealand media. Most,
like the New Zealand Herald, blamed Wallace for the events that led to
his shooting and claimed that the causes of his “rampage” remained a
“mystery”. But there is nothing mysterious about the reasons underlying
Wallace’s actions and the police response.
Working class youth in rural towns like Waitara are facing major social
problems. Waitara’s main industries—a small car assembly plant, a clothing
factory and meat processing works—have all been shut down over the past 15
years, throwing most of the workforce into long periods of unemployment and
poverty. In order to secure a future, many young people have been forced to
move away, because the town has few educational or training opportunities.
In such circumstances, anger, frustration and a profound sense of injustice
are not unusual. Wallace was by all accounts, a popular and outgoing person.
Newspaper photos show him as a confident young man with a broad smile, flanked
by sports trophies. He had been an above-average student, and a fine
sportsman. He had left Waitara in order to pursue university study. University
students, however, face huge tuition costs and competitive pressures. Just
prior to the shooting, Wallace had dropped out of his studies and returned
home to live.
Rather than address the sharpening social crisis in towns like Waitara,
successive New Zealand governments have insisted on tougher policing. The
purpose of these “youth crime” campaigns, which have resulted in the
systematic harassment of working class youth, is to deflect attention from
their own responsibility for creating the social disaster.
The reactionary character of this law-and-order rhetoric is summed up in a
comment by prominent columnist Frank Haden on the Wallace case. Arguing that
Abbott should never have been put on trial, Haden declared in the Sunday
Star Times that Wallace was a “rubbish person” with a “worthless life” who
deserved no sympathy. In other words, the police had every right to act as
judge, jury and executioner.
There has, however, been significant support for the stand taken by the
Wallace family among ordinary working people, who were outraged by the police
shooting. Various Maori spokesmen have attempted to channel this discontent
into allegations of police racism and demands for greater Maori representation
in the police force. In the wake of the shooting, demonstrations took place in
Waitara, New Plymouth and Wellington.
Following the trial, Willie Jackson, a former MP and reporter for a Maori
radio network, again blamed racism for the shooting. According to Jackson, the
problem is that “you can count on one hand the number of Maori managers in the
police force.” He endorsed the verdict in the Wallace case, simply calling for
more Maori “decision-makers” with the police and criminal justice system.
Tragedies like the police shooting of Wallace are, however, not going to be
halted by appointing more Maori police. Abbott himself was part-Maori. Further
incidents are certain, as governments respond to the deepening social crisis
by promoting intolerance and resorting to the ruthless use of the police.