Maintaining trust in law

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 June, 1994, 12:00am

RECENT court cases in which police officers have failed to produce the evidence asked for in court, assaulted witnesses to extract a confession or even failed to turn up for a trial show a shockingly cavalier attitude to the judicial system and the rules of evidence. The Complaints Against the Police Office (CAPO) is considering disciplinary action against a number of individual New Territories officers. But the extraordinary lack of concern displayed by the officers involved suggests something more fundamental is amiss in the force as a whole. One officer actually boasted in court that if a witness had not complied voluntarily he would have forced compliance, if necessary by dragging his victim through the streets.

The police force should be taking a long, hard look at the attitudes prevailing in some of its stations. It should be asking itself how officers can have strayed so far from the conduct and thinking expected of them. Some policemen seem to behave like enforcers, not law enforcement officers.

Does the fault lie in the individual or in the culture of the force? Is it a question of the low quality of recruits, inadequate training or a decline in standards after training has been completed? Have the attitudes of certain officers now declined to the point where others are being influenced unwittingly? Is the problem confined to a lack of understanding of the rules of evidence or has the rot spread? Could standards of probity have declined to the levels of the early 1970s when the Independent Commission Against Corruption was set up specifically in response to widespread corruption within the police? The situation may not be as bad as it appears from the few individual cases that have come up in court, although a retired judge's recent allegations that evidence is being planted on witnesses does not offer much reassurance. However, it has gone beyond the stage where the police can brush the matter off.

Standards need to be improved, or the public will lose trust in the police and in the law its officers are employed to uphold. Once the force has committed itself to an internal inquiry, it must also accept the need to act on its findings. In some cases a refresher course in standards of evidence may suffice. But if low standards are as widespread as some suspect, more drastic measures may be required.