Police Commissioner Andrew Coster under fire for column on data gathering

Andrew Coster.
Andrew Coster. Photo credit: The AM Show.

By Hamish Cardwell of RNZ

A column by Police Commissioner Andrew Coster seeking to start a national conversation about surveillance is being panned as a disingenuous attempt to deflect criticism.

Coster wrote in the NZ Herald complaining the police were copping it for underdoing and overdoing intelligence collection.

On one side, they were panned for only learning of threats to mosques posted to a website used by extremists and white supremacists after a member of the public told them.

And on the other, there are reports of police approaching innocent young Māori, photographing them, collecting their personal details and sending it to a national database.

Coster writes these both speak to the question about what trade-offs to privacy the community is prepared to make in the interests of safety.

Criminologist Emilie Rākete said this was a ridiculous, false comparison.

"Brown children waiting outside the dairy without their parents are not the same thing as Nazis.

"There is a reasonable expectation of privacy - a reasonable expectation from parents that their children won't be approached and photographed by strangers - that people posting about organising killings on the internet do not have."

Rākete said Coster was trying to deflect criticism of the police, including accusations of racial profiling when taking photographs of young people - something the police deny.

Victoria University of Wellington criminologist Trevor Bradley said while there was merit in a public discussion about privacy, the police needed come clean about what they are doing.

He said the police's widening use of facial recognition technology and revelations about young people being photographed - currently the subject of three reviews - only came to light because of the media.

"Once the police have put their cards on the table and tell us what they have been doing, are doing, and plan to do, then we can have a conversation on that basis."

Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman said when Coster was appointed he raised hopes about a change in approach from police - particularly when he swiftly axed the trial of the controversial Armed Response Teams.

She now felt let down.

"I still have great hopes that his heart might be in the right place but I am disappointed."

Ghahraman said Coster had gone about sparking a public debate all wrong.

"I think if anything, a Herald column by our top cop the week of revelations should have come with an apology and an acknowledgement of wrong.

"I think that would have been more of a good faith way of sparking a conversation with communities."

The Independent Police Conduct Authority and Privacy Commissioner's report into photographing is expected to be finished in September.