14 Apr 2021

Northland police unlawfully used checkpoints to gather information for years

7:55 am on 14 April 2021

Police in Northland admit that for years they have been unlawfully using road blocks to gather intelligence.


File photo. Photo: RNZ/ Rob Dixon

The police watchdog has found the police illegally detained a woman and breached her privacy by photographing her and her partner at a checkpoint in Northland in 2019.

In November 2019, police set up checkpoints near a 'fight night' event in Ruakākā they knew would be attended by lots of gang members.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority said officers checked IDs, warrants and registrations, and breath-tested people.

Those they suspected were attending the fight event, or were in gangs or were associates - including the woman referred to in the IPCA report who is not a gang member - were asked to pull over and they and their vehicles were photographed.

The IPCA said police used the legitimate checks allowed under the Transport Act as a "pretext for intelligence gathering", which was "disingenuous" and unlawful".

It said the woman was illegally detained and her privacy breached.

Northland Police District Commander Tony Hill said the tactic has been used for years.

He said the officers were acting with the best of intentions.

"They thought they were doing the right thing and they had no perception what they were doing was unlawful.

"But the consequences to us is that we've made sure that we're not doing it [any more], and that any photographs taken from this event have been destroyed.

"We're going back through to check ... any others [taken unlawfully in previous checkpoints] ... we'll be destroying those as well."

Hill said he believed New Zealanders wanted the police to tackle gangs.

"I actually think the public would expect us, not to break the law, but to go out and to make sure that we're very conscious of who's associating with known organised crimes groups and doing something about the damage that organized crime groups do in society."

He said while the police have said sorry to the woman, they have not apologised to the others whose photos were taken.

The woman said she believed the police thought it could get away this type of action because Māori in Northland were used to being treated this way by officers.

In his finding, the IPCA judge Colin Doherty acknowledged they never would have known about the practice if she had not complained.

Criminologist Juan Tauri said it beggars belief the top brass did not know it was unlawful.

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse and that should apply for the police.

"They should know that what they're doing is legal or not, before they do it.

"And they don't have the excuse that most of us have ... because we don't live and work [with] the law, as they do, every day.

"They have even less excuse not to be upholding our rights as citizens."

He said he believed this type of practice was happening nationwide.

Criminal justice reform advocacy group JustSpeak's director Tania Sawicki-Mead said this type of policing is counter-productive.

"Where [police] make it clear that [they] associate a bunch of people in a community or in an area with the actions of some, that does very little to build trust and understanding between community and police.

"The kind of trust and sense of safety that police need to be able to do their job properly."

An RNZ investigation has revealed officers are approaching young Māori who had done nothing wrong and photographing them, collecting their personal details and sending it to a national database.

It led police to conduct a nationwide internal probe into the way it gets, uses and stores pictures of young people and adults - and a separate review into how it collects, stores and manages information generally.

The IPCA and Privacy Commissioner are also reviewing the police practices of photographing people.

IPCA judge Colin Doherty said the Northland findings would be fed into this wider review.

The findings of the IPCA and Privacy Commissioner are expected in September.

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