Red Alert

Justice and compassion in a time of tragedy

Posted by on March 10th, 2011

I can’t get out of my head  the case of Cornelius Arie Smith-Voorkamp the guy with Aspergers who was caught stealing light fittings from houses in Christchurch. This has been dealt with on other blogs, far more articulately than I could, but it is still in my thoughts.

I am appalled at the thought of looters in Christchurch, at a time of such utter devastation and tragedy. It seems such a callous crime, and in most of the reported cases it appears to be so. I don’t blame anyone for having a strong reaction to the news. But as ever in matters of justice, it pays to step back, look at each case on its own and hear all the facts and background.

From what I have read, callous is not a word that can be attributed to Arie Smith.  As I read the words of his sister in the link above I instantly thought of people I know on the autistic spectrum, some much younger, some older, and I realised how easily they could end up in a situation like this.  Arie’s family have acknowledged his wrong-doing and accepted his arrest. But this is a mini-tragedy amidst a much larger tragic situtation, and one that deserves a little understanding.

I don’t know what the circumstances are that saw him covered in bruises. But I do know that it disturbs me deeply, and I want it investigated. I also truly hope Judith Collins regrets her statement made in the wake of looting incidents. She was playing to the crowd of course, and I don’t think was refering directly to Arie, but it was not the calm words of leader in our community.

Overall as a society, even in times of unimaginable tragedy and extraordinary emotion we need think before we act, ask why someone might act in a way we do not like or understand and, when faced with a situation such as this, operate with compassion and understanding. At a practical level we also need to help people learn more about Autism and Aspergers. Here is a place to start.

23 Responses to “Justice and compassion in a time of tragedy”

  1. John Forde says:

    Well said, Grant.

  2. DJ says:

    Thanks for your post Grant. Some people take for granted how we view the world and can forget not everybody shares our view. It’s important especially in a emotionally charged time like this to calm down and look at the facts.

    I thought it was brave when the sister of Arie Smith talked to Michael Laws on Radiolive last week and explained about her brother’s behaviour. Michael’s not really known for his sympathy.

  3. Hilary says:

    Thanks Grant. With great compassion Arie and his lawyer have decided not to lay a complaint as it might detract from the good work the police are otherwise doing in Christchurch.

    Also several other good places for information such as (for good resources) and specific organisations such as Aspergers Syndrome New Zealand, ASK Trust, Altogether Autism

  4. Spud says:

    I know a lot about autism and the dude couldn’t help himself. :-(

  5. And what if a blind person happened to stumble somehow into the cordon area with his guide dog would he also have the book of justice thrown at him. Sometimes the law has an excellent chance to demonstrate it is not an arse and a whip of the people. Seems like with Ariel it is blind. The Justice system has never been about justice anyway. Hope things work out for Arie.

  6. Unpleasantly Odouriferous says:

    Nice words, Grant. Still, it ought not matter whether or not this guy has a compelling story or was just being an arsehole – it is not the Police’s job to beat offenders up. Punishment is the Courts job to decide and the punitive options are few, humane and prescribed by Parliament. It’s nice this guys story is out to counteract the vilification of the masses but, still, it ought not matter. The assault was unnecessary and illegal and it would be so no matter who the victim was.

  7. Grant Robertson says:

    @UO I agree with you, it does not matter the circumstances in terms of (possible) Police violence. My point in the Post is wider about the way media and people in general approach a case like this.

  8. Mike says:

    “At a practical level we also need to help people learn more about Autism and Aspergers”

    Do you include the police Grant?
    Seems it is they who need to learn about people with Autism/Aspergers.

    If my son can’t trust the police to help him when he is distressed, then who can he trust?

    I accept that Arie doesn’t want to press charges, but the police must investigate how his injuries were inflicted, and the fact that they are choosing not too is insulting.

    Grant, there is anger out here in the way Arie has been treated, and Judith Collins reprehensible comments.
    Please, put the blow torch on her in Parliament, and remind her that her comments re; “cellmate” could see her accused of inciting violence, a criminal offence.

  9. Tracey says:

    We all know emotions were running high, but even at the time of his first appearance on tv I wondered how he got the bruises. I hoped it wasnt the police who are trained, supposedly in their 3 months of training to deal with such emotional issues

  10. Mike Tindall says:

    Deleted. Provocative trolling. Criticism is ok but not your behavior. Clare

  11. Spud says:

    @Mike I know someone who is concerned about tasers for precisely that reason. And then there was that story of an eighty year old woman being tasered in another country just because she was questioning the police. 👿

  12. MikeM says:

    “My point in the Post is wider about the way media and people in general approach a case like this.”

    I agree with you, but rather than understanding about aspergers and other conditions, more in the sense that I’m amazed it took the media an entire week and publicity from third parties before visibly asking the question and explaining why this chap looked like he’d been pushed down several flights of stairs when he showed up in court.

    There may have been a perfectly good explanation, but if they’re going to print a photo like that, it deserves an explanation beyond “he’s the face of looting”. Unfortunately I think the media was probably suppressed by the noisy mob-justice-on-looters feeling going on amongst some people, which is a shame.

    I appreciate the sentiment of Arie and his lawyer to wait for a while before placing a complaint, though I’m concerned they may be doing so because of the humiliation aspect of being dragged through the media, rather than the reasons they mentioned, especially after the first occasion. I personally don’t think it should matter in the slightest whether he complains or not. If there’s a police officer out there who might be beating people without reasonable and legal cause simply because he or she’s had a bad and stressful day, it needs to be investigated and dealt with ASAP. Otherwise it’s unfair and dangerous for everyone who has to live in a community where police are (for good reason) granted elevated rights above other citizens.

  13. Ex Kiwi says:

    I think you are barking up the wrong tree. It would be exceptional for a person with Asperger’s syndrome to be able to use that diagnosis to exculpate themselves from a crime. Asperger’s are able to tell right from wrong, and they can function at a very high levels in society. Many are academically successful. The defining characteristics are that they lack social skills and social awareness, and are inflexible. What makes this guy deserving of more consideration than a thief with arthritis?
    If there has been an assault on this guy (an I hope there was not), then the police should investigate his complaint.

  14. Tracey says:

    Ex kiwi, doesnt Arie has Autism, within which Asberger’s is subdefined.

    I think you will agree there is a huge spectrum of sufferers.
    In fact some have been proposing that the diagnosis of Asperger’s be eliminated, to be replaced by a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder on a severity scale

    While having autism may not excuse him from a conviction it would be most unlikely to result in a custodial sentence and would even qualify for diversion (no criminal conviction).

    I imagine the obsessive part of the disorder, the narrow focus on a particular subject or behaviour would also vary in severity.

    A person with arthritis does not have a driving need to collect page 8 of all books they encounter, or to be mesmerized by light bulbs and want to collect them notwithstanding the danger to themselves by entering an earthquake zone to collect them.

    I agree it ought not require a complaint by this guy or his family and lawyer for an investigation. He clearly obtained bruising to his face which does not at first glance appear to come from a fall. When he was “booked” by the police, they ought to have notified someone in authority of his injuries, that person ought to have notified PCA or whatever they are now called.

  15. Mike says:

    Oh dear.

    Just read Phil Goff’s quote re; executing looters!! { Phil has explained the comment was not made seriously, see, Grant}

    Why doesn’t Phil go meet with Arie and explain why he should be put in front of a firing squad.

    I am speechless.

    Just lost my vote Labour. {I have a feeling we did not have your vote before now…., Grant}

  16. Oliver Ibbetson says:

    Come now Grant, it would be hypocritical to take Judith’s comment so seriously as to blog about them, and how they show a lack of leadership or judgement and then ignore Goff’s as “a joke”

    Surely saying “I saw the army out in the street and I thought court mar­tial, fir­ing squads you just can’t believe how low a small minor­ity of peo­ple can get. ” was “playing to the crowd”, and they were certainly “not the calm words of leader in our community.”

    In fact, if you look at the second part of Goff’s quote, “You know, to exploit people’s mis­ery in this way is just beyond forgiveness.” Where is the “Justice and compassion” in that statement?

  17. Mike says:

    {I have a feeling we did not have your vote before now…., Grant}

    That is how you interact with the average person who is seeking some answers from their politicians?
    Just dismiss them out of hand?

    Do you really believe that was a joking, throwaway line in the context of when it was said?


    I will never vote National, but Labour will never get my vote while it lurches ever rightwards/downwards in it’s search for the laura norder vote.

    Now I see why you didn’t want to attack Judith Collins head on in parliament concerning her remarks, it’s because the leader of your party made even more imflammatory comments!

    Oh for an effective opposition party with a leader that doesn’t want to out-bloke John Key..

  18. neoleftie says:

    Isnt Phil Goff allowed to make emotive statement?
    Surely while inpropriate for a number of reason, Phils comment surely is just an echo of what most of the common people in the street thought or stated on the subject of ‘looters’ – the lowest of the low. people were too afraid to leave there wrecked home to get supplies cause of the ‘looters’. all i can say thank goodness we live in a society where we dont shoot looters are are able to express emotive statements.

  19. Spud says:

    😯 , I’m staying right out of this! 😯

  20. Inventory2 says:

    Are you going to comment on Phil’s little “joke” Grant, or will you continue to attack the messenger. Judith Collins did NOT encourage jailhouse rape, but the left was happy to draw that inference and vilify her. Phi Goff DID talk about state-sanctioned firing squads, and the left is silent.

  21. Hilary says:

    A local has informed me that the light fitting and bulbs did not come from a house but an old shop building damaged by the Sept quake and awaiting demolition. So in a sense it was recycling. Arie is owed an enormous apology by the authorities.

  22. Ex Kiwi says:


    So because the building was damaged, its contents and fittings were free for the taking, right? Just because the building was set to be demolished does not mean that somebody, or some corporate body, does not have a property right over the lights.

    I hope he comes to your neighbourhood really soon, and does some recycling there. In my mind this man is a thief unless he can prove he is mentally impaired – Asperger’s Syndrome will never exonerate him.

    He deserves an apology if he has been assaulted by the police, but he deserves the same punishment that would be meted out to you or me if he stole the lights, and he also richly deserves the public opprobrium he and his family are now experiencing.