Manslaughter charges prompt renewed call for police to wear body cameras

There is a renewed call for police to be wearing body cameras at all times when they're on the job - in and out of the station.

Manslaughter charges have been laid against three officers after a man died in police custody at the station in Hawera. The heavily intoxicated 55-year-old was arrested in relation to an alleged domestic assault on May 31 last year, but in the early hours of June 1 was found unresponsive. 

It's taken a year-long investigation into what happened for charges to be filed, but criminal barrister Michael Bott of Heretaunga Law says footage of what went on that night could have expedited things.

"We rely upon the evidence in their notebook. It would be much more preferable if police were made to use body cameras when use of force is used," he told Newshub. 

The charges came as a surprise to ex-police officer and crisis negotiator Lance Burdett.

"It's quite a serious charge to bring against police officers so the evidence must be very strong," he told Newshub. "The threshold is high. You have to go through your supervisor, then another supervisor, then the Crown Solicitor. So to bring serious charges against police officers isn't taken lightly - and rightfully so."

Police said the decision to file charges "was made after a thorough investigation and consideration of legal advice from the New Plymouth Crown Solicitor and a Queen's Counsel".

Bott said bad cops going through court is rare, but it is good to have solid evidence - and he is deeply concerned that police officers are not yet required to wear body cameras.

"All of us should realise that there are occasional rotten apples everywhere in the world - even in the police force."

A UK study found body cameras reduced complaints against officers by 93 percent. A police review of the technology in 2018 here in New Zealand was quietly dropped, Stuff reported at the time, citing a lack of resources.

"The project was placed on hold as the resources were applied to other operational activities which at that time took priority over this scoping exercise research," Acting Superintendent Andrew Sissons said in May last year, saying each camera cost more than $1000 - not to mention the cost of storing and analysing video footage.

Prison officers, some Department of Conservation staff and parking wardens wear them. So should police, Bott says.

"When they're out on the job and they're basically undertaking arrests using force against New Zealand citizens, it should be mandatory the cameras are engaged. It will protect the officers and also protect New Zealand citizens." 

The charged officers have been granted interim name suppression and remanded on bail. They'll reappear in court on June 26.