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Too posh to be on the beat

The Dominion Post 4 April 2009

Alison Wheeler was dismissed as a police officer because she claims colleagues thought she was "too posh" for the police.

The 39-year-old former officer with Surrey police in England was fired after colleagues accused her of standing by while a fellow officer was punched and kicked to the ground outside the front doors of her police station in New Zealand Ave, Walton.

She was sacked for cowardice for allegedly failing to help and was also accused of lying about her actions to senior officers.

She took a case to the English Employment Tribunal. She claimed she was bullied while she was a police constable and was sacked because fellow officers thought her public school background made her unsuitable for the role.

Officers alleged the former opera singer failed to use her CS gas to temporarily immobilise the violent criminals and to support police constable Rory Channon during the fight.

Police Constable Channon was off duty and said he found up to five men fighting outside the police station and attempted to arrest one of them. He claimed Ms Wheeler, who was in uniform, stood nearby and shook her CS gas but did not move and he had to make his way into the station while being punched and kicked.

It is alleged Ms Wheeler did not use her radio to call for backup.

She is seeking [PndStlg]350,000 in compensation. She claims she acted in accordance with the requirements of her job. She claims CCTV footage proves she had physically intervened in the incident outside the police station.

When she saw a copy of the film it clearly showed her in the middle of the melee attempting to physically restrain one of the men involved.

She said she did not use her gas on one "yob" because he put his hands up and surrendered.

When she had earlier asked for the CCTV footage of the fight to help her case she was refused and told she could not be seen on the screen.

A friend of Ms Wheeler claimed that, because she did not drop her aitches and once took a day off to have a grand piano fitted, people thought she was too posh to be a police officer.

Alison was a mezzo soprano for 10 years before becoming a police officer. She gained a diploma from Trinity College of Music and appeared in operas including the Magic Flute and Eugene Onegin.

She claimed she had been bullied since she joined the Surrey Police in January 2006.

The hearing of the case in England is continuing but there are two lessons in it for New Zealand readers.

First, the claim of [PndStlg]350,000 compensation is an indication of the higher level of awards for employees in Britain compared with the more modest regime we have developed in New Zealand.

Second, the outcome will depend on whose version of events is believed.

However, if the CCTV footage was known to the police but withheld from the grievant then she would have a good case for faulty process here and in England. The test in New Zealand on whether the dismissal would be justified is what a fair and reasonable employer would have done in all the circumstances.

On the facts available to us, it looks as though Alison Wheeler has sung well for her supper and should expect a generous meal in response from the English Employment Tribunal.

Peter Cullen is a partner at Cullen - the Employment Law Firm

Email: peter@cullenlaw.co.nz

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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