7 Nov 2019

Police officer suggested he would plant evidence to boost arrests

2:41 pm on 7 November 2019

A police officer in South Auckland has resigned after an investigation into comments suggesting that he was going to plant empty drug bags in cars, in order to search them and increase the number of people he arrested.

Police lights

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In its investigation, the independent police watchdog found no evidence that he actually did plant evidence, but said the comments he made to a number of officers, the possession of bags on two separate occasions, two months apart, and text messages between him and his partner created a level of suspicion over his activity.

Police said the comments were "totally out of line" with their values, and incredibly disappointing.

The officer quit the force before the investigation was completed.

In June and August 2018 at Ōtāhūhū Police Station, Officer A, whose name is not used the report, produced at the start of his shift empty 'point' bags, which are small zip-lock bags often used to hold drugs.

The young officer suggested that he was going to use them as 'throw downs' - a colloquial term for planting or fabricating evidence - to allow him to search cars during his shift.

A police and Independent Police Conduct Authority investigation were launched, and both the officer and another, Officer B, were stood down. Officer B returned to work and is still working for the police.

Officer A said the comments were just jokes, and "banter" with others in his section, and that he never actually acted on it. The IPCA found no evidence he did plant any evidence in cars.

The officer, who graduated police college the year earlier, had established a reputation as capable of seeking out and searching suspicious vehicles for drugs and weapons, the report said.

He said he'd become "effectively famous" in his section, and outside of it, for his ability to search cars and arrest people.

In the June incident, when asked if he was "going to use a throw down to get into a car that night", he allegedly responded "yeah, like this" and pulled the bags from his pocket. He told the IPCA he couldn't recall saying that but said a joke of that sort might have been made.

That same month, he text his domestic partner, who was also a serving police officer, and said: "got to get better at getting into cars" and later: "actually use my throw down" which the report said was in reference to planting the point bags in cars.

Officer B, who he'd worked with on patrol a few times, said he was a "big believer [that] you're not going to… find stuff unless you stop cars and speak to people. So the way I operate, I will stop as many cars as I can in a shift because it's a numbers game".

Officer A also told another officer, C, that he kept point bags on him in case he needed to get into a car. Officer C said he didn't know whether Officer A was joking or serious, and said: "You need to be careful about that because [you] might get yourself in trouble."

Officer A later said he remembered "joking" with Officer C. "It was just a joke," he said. He was adamant that he had never used and would never plant point bags or anything else to allow him to search a car, and said all of his comments were jokes and nothing more.

The Authority reviewed the full police investigation and found there was no evidence that Officer A used 'throw downs' to unlawfully search cars or anything else.

But a number of different elements - having point bags in both June and August, the comments made to other officers, and his texts to his domestic partner - raised "a level of suspicion" over his policing practices.

"Notwithstanding this, the Authority agrees with police that there is no evidence to substantiate a finding that Officer A was acting unlawfully and corruptly by 'planting' evidence in order to search motor vehicles," the report said.

Staff measured success on number of arrests

IPCA chair Judge Colin Doherty said it points to a willingness for officers to stop vehicles and search them for the primary purpose of uncovering evidence and making an arrest.

"The Authority is concerned that the context within which the term was being used points to a set of inappropriate attitudes and practices, at least within the particular section within which the officers were working.

"It is clear from the Authority's interviews with section staff that they partly measured success on the job in terms of the number of arrests they made as a result of random or suspicious vehicle stops.

"While the references to 'throw downs' may have been intended as a joke, they were being made as part of broader conversations about how to stop and search vehicles. Officers A and B admitted to talking amongst themselves and to others about how to increase their success in making arrests through vehicle stops. Officer A's text messages to his partner also appear to demonstrate a willingness to stop cars on dubious legal grounds in order to increase his arrest statistics.

"As international policing research has clearly shown, if officers focus on 'suspicious' drivers and vehicles, without any concrete evidence to support their suspicions, this will inevitably be likely to result in enforcement practices that discriminate against some groups more than others.

"In particular, the suspicious cues upon which officers rely will most likely have elements of ethnic and socio-economic stereotyping. It is precisely this sort of enforcement practice that leads to accusations of unconscious bias in policing. It is also increasingly discordant with the culture and philosophy being espoused and encouraged by the police as an organisation."

Police said the comments made by the officer were "incredibly disappointing", and they undertook a large investigation after they were alerted to the comments, including speaking to 19 officers, searching Officer A's home, work environment, and analysing his phone and workbooks.

Counties Manukau District Commander Superintendent Jill Rogers said the comments were "totally out of line" with their values and professionalism.

"The fact that other officers reported this to their supervisors is very reassuring and I think the immediate response by police which saw the two officers stood down while the matter was investigated proves that we do not tolerate this type of behaviour," she said.

"The role of police is to prevent crime and to do that, police take an evidence based approach analysing intelligence and data to deploy officers into specific areas where crime and road trauma are occurring.

"Police look out for suspicious vehicles, persons and activity which is exactly what our community would expect our officers to be doing.

"There are countless examples where lawful vehicle stops have removed dangerous drivers from our roads as well as discovering illegal drugs including methamphetamine, firearms, stolen property or wanted persons and prevented further offending and victimisations."

The IPCA report also found non-evidential, low value exhibits - such as empty point bags - were sometimes thrown in a rubbish bin without being documented and without any paper trail, contrary to police policy.