Dialogue: Police Commissioner Andrew Coster on criticism and intelligence-gathering

OPINION

Is it just me, or are we having trouble making up our minds about what we want? In the same news cycle on Tuesday, police were simultaneously criticised for failing to undertake routine intelligence collection and also for undertaking routine intelligence collection.

In fairness, the criticism spoke to two different issues; the alleged failure to scan for threats related to the bomb threat made against the Christchurch mosques and the alleged inappropriate collection related to police interactions with young people.

However, both issues speak to the same question: What are the appropriate boundaries for police intelligence collection and what trade-offs are we, as a community, prepared to make in the interests of safety?

You simply cannot have broad intelligence scanning and collection without some implications for privacy.

At one level, police should be agnostic on this. It’s a question for the community, and an important conversation, the extent to which we’re prepared to trade-off rights and freedoms in the interests of having police and other security agencies positioned to intervene before crimes occur.

On the other hand, we recognise the importance of community buy-in to the business of policing and community safety. Our communities will not be safe unless communities take ownership of safety, even if police play a key lead role.

The way we police has a big bearing on the extent to which we’re able to secure
community buy-in. We recognise this and are endeavouring to police accordingly.

We do not want a police state in New Zealand, and we rightly expect policing to be very respectful of our rights and freedoms. Exactly where that boundary is set can be a matter of contention, as we see in the stories simultaneously running this week.

I’m not advocating for the boundary to be set in any particular place but because it’s important for us to acknowledge that, wherever we draw the line, there are trade-offs.

To be able to prevent crime and harm, police need access to information. Information enables us to understand potential offenders’ movements, associations and activities. It enables us to join the dots in the way the community expects us to do when crimes are being planned or committed. It enables us to act quickly when we need to, to prevent the worst harms occurring.

However, there is a downside. To gather this kind of information, Police need to speak to people, and we need to view content online.

Whilst we do our best to ensure that there is some reasonable trigger for the conversations we have, and a reasonable basis for the information we collect, it is near impossible to collect information relevant for crime prevention without also collecting some that turns out not to be related to a crime.

The relevance of information is not always clear at the time it is collected, particularly where offending is suspected but not yet proved.

This question is raised particularly in relation to police use of technology such as CCTV, which is now so pervasive throughout our community. There are difficult ethical questions sitting inside of technology use, with which we are presently grappling, including with the advice of an expert advisory panel that will hopefully assist us to get the balance right.

Wherever the line is drawn, we recognise the reasonable expectation that there is fairness in the way we go about our work. As police, we know that the community expects high standards from us, in the way we interact with people and keep our communities safe. We have those same expectations for ourselves.

There is no place for targeting of particular groups based on ethnicity or any other similar characteristic. We are aiming for clear behavioural indicators or information received as the trigger for police involvement.

Police are committed to ensuring we police in a way that all of the community sees as legitimate, and we welcome constructive debate on what is and isn’t legitimate in this context, particularly where that debate recognises the trade-offs on both sides of the argument.

• Andrew Coster is the New Zealand Police Commissioner.

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