Monday, 11 July 2011

Two Lightbulbs, an Aspie and The Police

A case that has been in the news here in New Zealand recently is that of a young man with Aspergers, whose name is Cornelius Arie Smith-Voorkamp, known to his friends as Arie. Arie’s ‘special interest’ is all things electrical, especially light fittings and switches, the older the better. He has been collecting them for years. He often removes them from old, abandoned houses, shops, etc, usually asking the permission of the owners first. However on one occasion he did not, and what happened next is what has been in the news.

Arie for some time had been aware of an abandoned building, formerly a shop, near his home in Christchurch, NZ, which had been badly damaged during the earthquake of September 2010. He could see some light switches that looked interesting, even compelling, to him. One evening he decided to go in to the half-wrecked building and get them. His partner, Michael, was with him at the time, and tried to persuade him not to go in, but Arie was in the grip of an Aspie obsession, and nothing could stop him.

When he got into the building, however, he saw that the switch was not of a sort he wanted, so looked around, and saw a couple of light bulbs he found interesting instead. He thought they would look good on his mantelpiece. So he started to undo them. Michael had now followed him in, still trying to get him to come out of the dangerous building. At this point, things suddenly and abruptly went wrong. The police came by, saw the light of Arie’s torch, and came rushing in.

Now I should add here that this was just a few days after the Big Christchurch Quake of February 22nd 2011, in which 181 people were killed, and most of the Christchurch CBD and numerous other buildings were wrecked. Looters had already been preying on the vulnerable, parts of the city were under curfew and military-style lockdown, and emotions were running high. So it’s natural the cops should be on high alert. It was Arie’s misfortune, or bad timing, that it should all occur when he was in the grip of his obsession.

But this does not excuse what happened next – the young men were seized, thrown to the ground and handcuffed, with being given a chance to explain what they were doing there. Arie panicked, probably on the verge of meltdown, as he didn’t understand what was going on, and why the police – sworn to uphold the law and help people – were treating him like this. He was yelling that the handcuffs were tight enough already, as they were pulling them even tighter. A burly policeman (Arie is of slight build) had his knee on Arie’s back. Michael then saw one of the cops elbow Arie heavily in the face. Arie himself remembers a ‘blow to the back of his head’, after which he blacked out temporarily. His stutter (which comes on him in stress) was mocked and jeered at, and his attempts to tell them he has Aspergers were ignored.

Arie and Michael were arrested, hauled up before a judge the next day, and accused of burglary. The case made the news and Arie’s bruised and battered face was plastered all over the national media as ‘the face of looting’. He was in jail for over a week, an experience he now looks back on with fear and horror. So far, the actions of the police (barring the assault and mocking of course) might (JUST) be excused as excitability, given the other, and far more serious, looting going on at the time.

But it didn’t end there. Over the next few months, Arie has been back and forth from court, as the police have proceeded to ‘throw the book at him’. Despite now knowing full well about his Aspergers, and despite the repeated recommendations of several judges to the police to consider a diversion scheme for Arie instead of prosecution (an option for minor offenses in NZ), they have repeatedly refused any chance to defuse the whole matter. The case must now go to a defended trial, costing the taxpayers far more of course. They have also strenuously denied the assault, despite his obvious injuries seen by all on national television and in newspapers, claiming that as Arie hasn’t filed a complaint, “no assault can have taken place”. Arie has his reasons for not filing a complaint, not the least of which is his new fear of the police, and they are valid. It’s entirely possible that such a complaint would be an extremely stressful waste of time anyway, given that the police tend to ‘close ranks’ and protect their own, even when they have obviously done wrong. The police have also denied that army personnel were with them at the time, which is not supported by the statements of Arie and Michael. [16th July update - I've noticed the latest police statement says that no army personnel were 'involved in the apprehension of' Arie and Michael. A nice bit of official hair-splitting, which gives them wriggle-room to say later, well, (cough, cough) they were there but they didn't actually arrest anyone... Also, it's worth noting that Michael was also assaulted, and charged, and will be coming up in court the same day as Arie, the 28th July.]
[Further update - the case has been postponed till later in August, as a freak snowstorm meant Arie couldn't get to a court-ordered psych appointment. So still not resolved, and still hoping sense will prevail in the end.]

Oh, and the objects he ‘burgled’? Two light bulbs, worth about $2 at the local supermarket. The owners of the building, a Mr and Mrs Matsis, were not contacted by police until quite late in this saga, after a team of reporters for TV1’s Sunday program tracked them down and told them what was going on. They were horrified, and made it plain they did not want to press charges, being more concerned about the safety of the young men going into the building than a pair of cheap light bulbs. Arie, with a team from Sunday, went to their house and apologised to them for entering their property and taking the bulbs. The apology was accepted, and it was a very amicable meeting. A short documentary on the whole case with Arie and Michael’s testimony appeared on TV1’s Sunday program this past Sunday, the 10th of July. The reaction of the police? When they heard about it, they first approached Mr and Mrs Matsis and ‘persuaded’ them to ‘let the courts handle it’. (The Matsis’ however, later told the Sunday team they still hope for Arie to be acquitted.) The next step was that the police told the Sunday team that they are now under criminal investigation also!!! (Read this story - )

So what are we to make of all this? It seems the police are determined to ‘make an example’ of Arie. There were far more serious cases of looting that could have been used for this, including those who stole generators being used by emergency services, or those who broke into homes or buildings left temporarily empty, and took valuables and money. So why pick on Arie especially? There are grounds for believing that the police might have a very negative attitude to anyone with Aspergers, regarding them as a ‘nuisance’; and that Police HQ in Wellington (our capital) might be insisting on a ‘hard line’ being taken with anyone with Aspergers. Now, I am not saying that all police feel like this. I am not even saying that all police are aggressive and liable to beat up offenders. But it does seem they cannot admit they made a simple mistake, or that they were over-eager to ‘prove themselves’ and ‘catch those bastard looters’. No apology has been offered, and it doesn’t look like it ever will be. The attitude of the relevant government minister doesn’t seem too good either – she was reported as saying she hoped he would be ‘locked up for a long time – with a cellmate’. The implications of that are chilling.

Another serious implication of this case is the Sunday team being investigated. This should also send a chill down the spine of anyone who believes in a free press as an essential part of a truly democratic society. So why are the police attempting to silence this investigation? Why are they refusing to admit they got it wrong? Are they that determined to deny the egg on their faces, that they must force through the courts a serious conviction charge on a young man whose only previous involvement with the law was a reprimand for not wearing a helmet when he was biking (a legal requirement in NZ)? Can they not just be ‘man enough’ to admit they made a mistake, and substitute a lesser charge instead? To say “Sorry guys, we got it wrong, this isn’t a Big Bad Looting Criminal after all”? It seems not.

I must admit here, my own attitudes towards the police were formed back in the 80s, when I took part in many anti-racism protests. I witnessed cops commit appalling violence towards protestors, and blatantly lie about it in court. I heard their jeering comments, and saw their obvious prejudices towards blacks, women and gays. It shocked me so much that for months after the Springbok Tour protests back in 1981, if I saw a policeman in the street I would start to shake, and want to vomit. I know the fear Arie now feels. But that was nearly 30 years ago. I thought that with a younger, better trained and more aware generation of cops, that the nasty ‘police culture’ of that time was history. But it seems only the objects of their derision and prejudice have changed, not the attitudes themselves. This is a sad indictment on our police force, the government attitudes and policies behind them, and the behaviour of those individual police and army personnel who were there. I am disappointed in my own country, and that’s a heavy thing to have to say. The only thing to moderate that disappointment is the numbers who have come out in support of Arie and Michael, which is immensely heart-warming to see.

This case is not over yet. Watch this space. Better yet, watch the program, and judge for yourself.
The Sunday program also has a Facebook page, if you want to make comments, at!/SundayTVNZ

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