Evidence in Hawera manslaughter case must be 'very strong' to charge three police officers, former top cop says

Lance Burdett and the Hawera Police Station.
Lance Burdett says he's never heard of such serious charges being brought against police before. Photo credit: Google Maps / The AM Show

Update: This article incorrectly stated Shannon Parker was head of the Independent Police Conduct Authority. It has since been updated to say she is founder of the New Zealand Police Conduct Association.

Evidence of wrongdoing "must be very strong" for the New Zealand Police to charge three of its officers with manslaughter, a former top cop says.

On Wednesday morning, police announced they had filed manslaughter charges against officers after a year-long investigation into a man who died while in custody at Hawera Police Station last year.

It alleges the officers were "grossly negligent in their duty of care" and that their negligence was "a causal factor" in the death of the 55-year-old victim.

Lance Burdett, an ex-police officer who served as their top crisis negotiator for 13 years, says he can't remember charges as serious as this ever being brought against law enforcement.

"It took me by surprise. It's quite a serious charge to bring against police officers so the evidence must be very strong," he told Newshub.

"The threshold is high. You have to go through your supervisor, then another supervisor, then the Crown Solicitor. So to bring serious charges against police officers isn't taken lightly - and rightfully so.

"I don't know much about [this case], but to bring charges that are that serious? I've never heard of it before, certainly in my time with the police."

A 55-year-old man died while in custody at Hawera Police Station last year.
A 55-year-old man died while in custody at Hawera Police Station last year. Photo credit: Google Maps

The head of a police misconduct victim advocacy group agrees.

"I can't think of a time [when charges like this have been laid against police officers]," NZ Police Conduct Association founder Shannon Parker told Newshub.

"It's great to see that police have put this matter before the courts, and are allowing an open and transparent process to follow. I think this will give the public and family confidence the police are taking the matter seriously, and are not trying to put their reputation first."

However Parker says there are still underlying issues with police culture and how complainants are dealt with.

"In many cases, police are investigating themselves, they clear themselves and the matter's over and done with. I don't think that's a fair or reasonable process," she said.

"There needs to be a shift in the culture of police, and how they treat complainants and matters involving their own - it can only come from within.

"They need to have a desire to change, and they just don't. They don't treat complainants well and the perception in many cases is that complainants aren't taken seriously... It's not good enough."

Burdett was previously involved in a case in which four charges of assault were brought against police officers. He told Newshub it's incredibly difficult to file serious charges against cops, let alone get a conviction.

"The public and private scrutiny and the personal tolls it takes when you're going through an investigation like this, it's pretty overwhelming," he said. "The investigators that have gone through this would've had to make sure they've done everything correctly."

Parker says police transparency is "hugely crucial to public trust" - and taking matters through the courts is an effective way to guarantee it.

"The public needs to have trust and confidence that police aren't just investigating and clearing themselves. These processes need to be open and transparent."

Newshub has contacted police for a response to Parker's claims about its culture of dealing with complainants.

The death of the man at the centre of the manslaughter case occurred following a call-out to a family harm incident at 11:30pm on May 31, 2019.

Police at the time said the man was intoxicated, arrested for assault and taken to the cells. He was then found "unresponsive" during a routine check in the early hours of June 1.

Despite efforts to revive him by police staff and again by paramedics when they arrived, he couldn't be saved.

All three officers have been stood down from their roles and an employment process has been undertaken, police say.

The trio have been granted interim name suppression and remanded on bail ahead of an appearance at the New Plymouth High Court on June 26.