COVID-19: Police refuse to apologise to Northland trio after car falsely reported stolen to access database

Police are refusing to apologise to a trio of women whose car was falsely recorded as stolen so they could access databases to locate them.

The women sent Northland into a snap COVID-19 lockdown last year after it was believed the they may have illegally crossed Auckland's locked-down border.

On Tuesday, it was revealed officers falsely reported cars linked to the trio as stolen to access Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems when hunting the women. 

The CCTV system is operated by two private sector companies - Auror and Safer Cities - with cameras across petrol stations, shopping malls and other public spaces.

Documents obtained by Newshub show police identified multiple vehicles one of the women was most likely in possession of and operating. A detective then wrote they entered a stolen alert on two of the cars, even though they weren't, in case they were sighted by police or CCTV capable of number plate recognition.   

Speaking to Melissa Chan-Green on AM, Detective Superintendent Dave Lynch said police will not apologise to the women.

"We make no apology," Lynch said. "The information that we were acting on at the time indicates that those women posed a serious risk to the health of people of Te Tai Tokerau and staff were acting with really good intentions to try and locate those women."

When asked whether he stands by the police's decision to falsely flag the cars as stolen, Lynch refused to give a clear yes or no answer. 

"The execution, in hindsight, wasn't what we would have preferred. At that particular point in time that was the only means available to them to access all of the available ANPR networks," he said.

Police Minister Chris Hipkins said officers were dealing with a "really challenging situation".

To Lynch's understanding, no one outside the investigation knew officers had falsely reported the vehicle as stolen.

He said there is no evidence this is a widespread practice and, after investigating, there was only one previous incident found before which involved a homicide investigation.

Changes to the system

Police officers now have greater power to access the ANPR network - without needing to flag vehicles as stolen.

As of three months ago, Lynch said officers now have the power to access the network when there is an "appropriate legal authority" which can be defined as when there is a threat to life or public health and/or when using a tracking warrant.          

Police staff are now being reminded of policies and a review of training in the use of ANPR will soon commence.