Police admit illegally taking photos of young Māori on the street

Questions raised after Wairarapa police officers stop youths to take their photos
Whānau of those photographed have been given no explanation why pictures were taken. Photo credit: Getty

By Te Aniwa Hurihanganui and Hamish Cardwell of RNZ

Police in Wairarapa have admitted to illegally taking photos of youths after RNZ alerted them to multiple reports of officers stopping and photographing young Māori on the street.

Whānau describe their sons walking alone in broad daylight, when police have approached and insisted they take their picture.

Marlene Harris said it happened to her son while he was walking home alone one afternoon in Masterton two years ago.

He was just 15 years old at the time.

"He was just walking from his dad's house back to my house and he was just minding his own business, walking along the street," she said.

"From what he can remember, there were two cops in the car. They just pulled up beside him and said that they needed to get his photo taken, or they would need to take him in."

Harris said he was not really given a choice.

"They did ask for permission, but it was more, 'can we have your photo taken?'. And that followed by, 'if you don't, then we will have to take you into the station'.

"Of course, he bowed down to their demand... It wasn't as if it was late at night, when he shouldn't have been walking the streets. It was in broad daylight."

Without an explanation, her son went home confused and told his parents.

Two years on his whānau still do not know why his photo was taken.

"We kind of didn't really think anything of it. Had I known there were multiple other kids in the community being hit up, I may have spoken out about it," she said.

"The Facebook post was really the only time that I learned it was actually a thing."

The post she is referring to was written by Massey University politics lecturer John-James Carberry last month.

He'd heard police in Wairarapa were taking photographs of young people, and reached out online to find out more.

He said his 14-year-old relative was also photographed by police in the district last year.

"He was just approached on the street," he said.

"The police told him that they were going to take his photo, they took his photo, and then let him carry on on his way."

Carberry said his Facebook post was flooded with responses from others whose tamariki had received similar treatment.

He is certain it has happened to many more young people in the district.

He said it appeared Māori were being racially profiled.

"These boys are descendants of Wairarapa.

"The fact that they should be treated as second-class citizens and actually have their rights breached on their own land?"

In a statement, police said the law allowed them to take photos of young people in some limited circumstances.

Wairarapa Area Commander Inspector Scott Miller said in August a review found three images were not taken under the right legislation and they were destroyed.

He said all other youth photographs were correctly captured under Section 214 of the 1989 Oranga Tamariki Act.

He did not say why the review was undertaken, or give any details about the youths captured in the photographs.

Lawyer Marie Taylor-Cyphers was horrified, and said what was happening was extremely inappropriate.

"When you're under 17 you're classed as a youth in New Zealand law, and the police are not able to interview you on your own without the consent of your caregivers or specifically your caregivers being present.

"Which really raises questions around how on earth they would be able to lawfully take photographs of you without their consent either."

Taylor-Cyphers said it also went against this country's UN Human Rights obligations to protect children from arbitrary or unlawful interference.

Human Rights lawyer Michael Bott said police needed to come clean about what was happening in the district.

"Unless we have sunlight on this then a bad policy could be allowed to gain traction, and that should not be the case.

"And let's not forget that when a young person sees a police officer in their uniform, there is an element of coercion about that.

"They are highly unlikely to ask 'what are you doing this for?'."

Victoria University's associate law professor Nessa Lynch, who is an expert in youth justice, said there was a regulation gap in privacy and surveillance laws and the rules for police needed to be tightened up.

But legal or not, she didn't think it was the right thing to do.

"It's not good practice I should think, because it's kind of stigmatising the young person and I don't think it's good policing."

Marlene Harris said what happened to her son two years ago had affected his attitude towards police.

"It's traumatised him a little bit, always feeling like he has to defend himself around them."