13 Oct 2022

Chris Hipkins accused of cowering after criticising privacy report on police photographing

9:26 am on 13 October 2022
Chris Hipkins

Police minister Chris Hipkins says there is an imbalance now between privacy and surveillance powers. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Police Minister Chris Hipkins is facing fierce criticism over his suggestion the government may change the law to allow officers to keep taking photographs of adults and children for looking out of place or suspicious.

Hipkins told the annual Police Association conference yesterday the pendulum had swung too far in favour of privacy over surveillance.

His comments follow a major joint investigation by the Independent Police Conduct Authority and the Privacy Commission, which found officers had developed a widespread practice of routinely taking photographs of people in public for later identification, with little cause.

Hipkins said photography was an essential part of intelligence gathering.

"I am concerned that the report, if left unchallenged, will significantly restrain the police's ability to do their jobs."

The minister is still waiting for official advice. But he said change would likely be needed to make, what was condemned by the report, legal.

"I wouldn't take off the table the potential for Parliament to take further action to support the police to do their job."

Hipkins declined to be interviewed by Morning Report today.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman said police did not need the power to take or keep peoples' information when there was no suspicion of offending.

Golriz Ghahraman

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

She accused Hipkins of cowering to pressure from opposition parties.

"This is the kind of thing we might expect from a National Party police minister or the likes of David Seymour. Just knee-jerk reaction law-making that doesn't make anybody more safe."

Te Pati Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi questioned what the government was trying to achieve.

"Are we headed towards a granny state, a mummy state-type government? Where the state now has total control over what happens with our rangatahi Māori, who are the predominant group who has been identified, photographed illegally without consent."

National police spokesperson Mark Mitchell said his party was open to supporting a law change.

"If the police are acting illegally, then we're open to making sure that they're actually acting legally. If that means legislation being passed then we're very open to having a look at that."

If the government decided to press ahead with changing the law, Barrister Marie Taylor-Cyphers said it must first clearly explain what doing so would achieve.

"If they're saying 'look, we can't police properly without this information', well let's see what we'd predict to change. Would we see a drop in youth burglaries, for example? Would we see more people in court? Would we see a drop in crime?"

Police Association president Chris Cahill said officers were currently unable to respond to hundreds of crimes because the offenders were identified by the use of voluntary fingerprints.

"The idea that someone can't voluntarily give their fingerprints and just to be clear a guardian or parent has to sign the form, we think that is wrong."

Voluntary fingerprints from youth were a game changer in solving crimes, Cahill said.

Chris Cahill told Morning Report the outrage over police storing of intelligence photographs had been overblown.

"We think the photograph situation has been blown out of proportion, police certainly had some processes that were wrong, some examples and there were only three complaints that were wrong that doesn't mean you throw the baby out with the bath water though," he said.

Chris Cahill, President of the NZ Police Association making a submission

Police Association president Chris Cahill. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The Police Association did not accept the police watchdog and the Privacy Commission's report was right, he said.

"The first test is to see whether the OPC and the IPCA actually got the law interpretation right, we think they didn't, we think they've completely overbalanced completely the other way."

The matter may have to be taken to court for a judge to decide whether their interpretation of the law was correct, he said.

A report by the police watchdog and the Privacy Commission last month found police were routinely, illegally taking photographs, half of which were of Māori youth.

While he admitted police stopping and photographing children on the street was inappropriate, Cahill said having photos of children who had been caught committing crime represented valuable intelligence.

"Unfortunately that is the reality for policing when you've got a group of youths that are hanging around shopping centres that are ram-raided an hour later, you're going to be suspicious that they're up to no good."

Cahill said police wanted to understand why Māori were over-represented, but that did not mean they should stop photographing young people suspected of or caught committing a crime.

Hipkins said if police were unable to photograph adults and children, it would take longer to identify offenders.

Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster is not backing away from the highly critical report.

In statement, Webster said he welcomed scrutiny of the legislation.

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