Māori justice advocates are warning any move to loosen laws around police photography will undo years of work to build trust with Māori.
The police minister has suggested the law could be changed to allow officers to keep taking photographs of adults and children looking out of place or suspicious.
Minister of Police Chris Hipkins said the pendulum had swung too far in favour of privacy over intelligence.
The comments came after an inquiry by the Independent Police Conduct Authority and Privacy Commission found officers had been taking thousands of photographs - often illegally - and storing them improperly.
It said in many instances they were not justified, and the photos were unnecessary. A disproportionate number of them were of rangatahi Māori.
Auckland University criminology professor Tracy McIntosh said the minister wanting to legalise the practice was worrying.
"You know when people talk about trying to balance human rights with security, you don't balance the things. Human rights by their nature are supposed to be irreversible and irrevocable," she said.
"To go back to the times of young Māori men particularly, but also young Māori women as a problem just for being, it certainly takes me back to my youth."
Justice advocate Julia Whaipooti said it was hard not to read Hipkins' speech as the endorsement of racial profiling.
"They're certainly not taking photos of Pākehā people walking around Ponsonby and Lambton Quay who have Class A drugs in their pockets, they're focusing and targeting poor communities," Whaipooti said.
"With accepting that and then advocating to legalise this practice it's advocating to legalise this practice that they know about."
On the second day of the Police Association conference on Thursday, president Chris Cahill reiterated his support for a change.
He said bad practice was definitely highlighted by the investigation, but stopping it altogether would seriously affect intelligence gathering.
He was questioned about how officers defined suspicious people: "It is an issue but sometimes you have to some trust in police to do things right," he replied.
"That's where tidying up around retention of the photographs after any ongoing suspicion doesn't exist, things like that.
"And the difference between taking a photograph of youth who've actually been caught committing a crime and not being able to keep that, and then one keeping just for intelligence purposes, is getting the mix right."
He also said the country had to look at wider disparities that led to high numbers of Māori in the justice system and police databases, rather than just what police were doing on the frontline.
But Whaipooti said police decisions were often an entry point into the justice system.
The current government promised transformation, with strategies like Hōkai Rangi in Corrections, but it appeared to now be caving to political point-scoring, she said.
"Hōkai Rangi is a very good strategy but in terms of practice, and seeing things come through, it's just yellow pages. So, it's words on paper with no action.
"I don't care how many Māori they appoint to advisory groups, or chocolate chip groups to advise in, when they're practice doesn't change. And right now they're advocating to make legal racist laws."
Whaipooti said any change in law would make hollow the government's promises of transformation, and it should instead be weighing up how such a change would affect children and families, and whether the state would be condoning their profiling.