An “employment process” has begun for a Queenstown police officer who remained on leave without pay yesterday after she avoided conviction for racially abusing a taxi driver.
When Jeanette May McNee, 44, known as Jenny, appeared in the Queenstown District Court yesterday, she was told contemporary New Zealand society did not tolerate racism.
Earlier this month, McNee was found guilty of using insulting language, stemming from an incident on November 3 in Queenstown.
She had denied telling Queenstown Taxis driver Ganesh Paramanathan “F… off to India. You came here and get all of the Kiwi jobs; eat your f… curry and f… off to India. This is a Kiwi job.”
Yesterday, Judge Tony Couch granted McNee a discharge without conviction.
The judge believed the consequences of a conviction would be out of all proportion to the gravity of the offence.
Usually, a person appearing in court on such a charge could expect to be fined a “few hundred dollars”. A conviction would have a major effect on the defendant’s career as a police officer, Judge Tony Couch says.
McNee was ordered to pay emotional harm reparation of $300 to Paramanathan, reparation of $155 for his loss of wages while the court case was on at the start of this month, and $388.13 reparation to Queenstown Taxis for costs incurred in extracting the video recording of the incident and the cost of having the taxi out of commission while that was done.
Defence counsel Nic Soper says the use of racist words did not automatically make the user racist. The incident was nowhere near fitting the criteria of what was colloquially described as a “hate crime”, he says.
“She does not have any animosity towards Asian people or the taxi driver as an individual.”
The defendant was off work at the time of the offence on voluntary medical leave because of a hip operation.
Extensive media coverage of the case had a “very dramatic effect” on McNee. A police disciplinary procedure was under way and a discharge without conviction, which was effectively an “acquittal”, would influence the process and McNee’s employment, Soper says.
Judge Couch says the maximum penalty for the offence was a fine of $1000, which showed it was intended to be regarded as a minor offence. Although Soper submitted the incident was at the lower end of the scale, Judge Couch disagreed.
“Contemporary New Zealand society simply does not tolerate racism.”
Judge Couch says the defendant’s comments were expressed in obscene language, in a harsh voice, while she pointed at the complainant’s face.
She had “grasped and twisted” Paramanathan’s wrist. The words used were disparaging of the Indian race, but Judge Couch accepted that hostility towards a race or nationality was not part of the defendant’s usual character.
McNee had attempted to apologise and had sent a letter of apology to Paramanathan.
Judge Couch says he had “more than a score” of references about McNee’s good character. She had been a police officer for 17 years and received commendations.
The publicity around the case had indirectly achieved some of the principles of sentencing in denouncing the conduct, deterring others from similar offending and holding her publicly accountable.
As the defendant was a police officer, her conduct in showing prejudice to any sector of the community must be of concern.
A Police Association representative told the court a conviction would be a hurdle to McNee being able to retain her employment.
In a statement yesterday, Southern district commander Superintendent Andrew Coster says McNee remained on leave without pay as an “employment process” began.
Police accepted the court decision, although the discharge was opposed through the police prosecution service, he says.
Police expected the highest standards from staff, personally and professionally, and the behaviour described in evidence did not align with police organisational values, or its code of conduct.
“It is appropriate that we hold to account those who don’t meet the standards of behaviour expected of them by the community.”
New Zealand Taxi Federation executive director Roger Heale understood the judge’s decision.
“In terms of conviction, there’s not much the judge could have done that she hasn’t already done to herself through the publicity of this trial in such a small community … The damage to the lady’s image is substantial.”
The court proceedings delivered a clear message: “If our drivers are abused, we will see it through.”
Additional reporting by Shawn McAvinue
– Otago Daily Times