Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On needless Police pursuit deaths, and the new Catch 22 powers of the SIS

December 7th, 2010

policeAt his post Cabinet press conference yesterday, Prime Minister John Key confirmed that 18 people had died in police pursuits this year.

Scoop asked him how many of those people had been (a) fleeing from a crime scene or had been engaged in criminal activity and (b) were driving their own, or the family car. Key said that he didn’t have the figures for (a) and referred me to the Police Minister Judith Collins’ office – more on that tomorrow. As for (b) he said he asked the Minister the same question that very morning, and she had said ‘some’ of them were in stolen cars.

Clearly, both factors are relevant. There is an assumption that people are fleeing from Police because they have something criminal to hide. Collins herself told RNZ yesterday morning that she was unwilling to order Police to stand by, and wave criminals goodbye. Her assumption of criminality may be quite false. The alternative explanation is that the drivers are running from Police simply because they’re scared or are pumped up with bravado – and the subsequent chases are putting the public, the Police and drivers at serious risk of death and injury, and for little more reason than a fear of getting in trouble with their parents, or of losing face in front of their mates.

If, therefore, the car is owned by them or their parents, justice could equally be served by the Police merely noting the licence plate, and waiting in the drive for them to come home. Moreover, Police do have radios. Surely rather than chase the offenders at high speeds through city streets endangering the public… have they no ability to radio ahead, and get the offender intercepted? It looks as if the fleeing offender may not be the only one whose actions arise from being pumped up with bravado.

At the post Cabinet press conference, one reporter raised the practices followed in Tasmania. As this 2010 press release from the Tasmanian Police explains, the ‘primary objective of Tasmania Police’s pursuit policy is to minimise risk to the public, people in offending vehicles and police officers.’ [Not the case here, where catching the fleeing offender seems to be the primary objective.] Tasmania therefore makes use of video technology in lieu of chasing the offender, in all but extreme cases. In addition, it has in place an explicit offence called “Evade Police” to deter people from fleeing.

Police have the power to clamp or confiscate the vehicles of drivers who refuse to stop. In the past six months more than 125 vehicles have been clamped after drivers committed the offence Evade Police. Cars were clamped for a minimum period of 28 days. If convicted, drivers may incur a special penalty of $600 in addition to any other fine imposed by the court for the offence. That is in addition to other penalties they may incur for any other driver offences.

If there was a similar offence in New Zealand, this could then be used as the cutting edge of an education campaign to convince people to stop, rather than to flee. In addition, and looking further afield, technology has created another alternative to Police pursuits. Namely, the so-called ‘Star Chase’ technology described here and which is already on the market. This removes the necessity of Police chasing a vehicle. All Police have to do is get close enough – once – to laser tag the offender, and then Police HQ can follow the movements of the car in real time, and pick them up at their leisure.

Instead of all these alternatives – which would save lives, and protect the community from unnecessary risk – Judith Collins is clinging to a policy that is killing people unnecessarily. We already have a “P” epidemic that we can’t control. Well, we also plainly have a “PP” epidemic that is killing people, and we can control these police pursuits. All it takes is for Police to dial back their bravado, admit that their current policy is wrong and adopt the alternatives outlined above. And if the Police won’t do it voluntarily, perhaps Key and his Police Minister can show some leadership. [Tomorrow I hope to have the exact figures for the questions cited in the opening paragraph.]

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The SIS and Catch 22

John KeySo the SIS are to get new powers to hack computers and intercept texts. All in order to better protect our national security, of course. In announcing this legislation at the post-Cabinet press conference yesterday, Key offered two competing explanations. One, that forty years after the passage of its original legislation, the SIS needed its powers to be brought up to date with new technology, and with how the courts have been interpreting security and privacy issues.

You might have thought that having waited 40 years, the SIS could therefore wait a little bit longer and get it right. Not so. Key then offered the other explanation – that with the Rugby World Cup looming, urgency was suddenly required.

And secrecy. The amending legislation would go before a committee that would be closed to the public. Its deliberations would not be open to Official Information Act requests, though it would ultimately issue a report on its conclusions. No one would know who had appeared before this committee or that they said, unless the submitter concerned told you personally what they said. Nor would the public be told how and why the Rugby World Cup was relevant to this secrecy and urgency. Surely, someone asked, it was up to the select committee of Parliament – and not up to the executive – to make such decisions about its deliberations? Yes, but I chair the committee, Key replied. Bada-dum !

The farcical nature of this process was exposed in the supportive notes for the legislation. You want robust oversight mechanisms? Well, Dr. Warren Young of the Law Commission ‘independently reviewed the regulatory impact analysis prepared by the SIS’ and ‘was satisfied that the information and analysis met all the quality assurance criteria’. Would that ‘independent reviewer’ be the same Warren Young who has been the staunchest public defender of the search and surveillance legislation currently before the House? Why yes, it would be.

Is the Rugby World Cup really going to be a focus for global terrorism? Who knew Bin Laden was such a fan? Conceivably, someone might want to use this event as a platform for their cause, even if few countries treat rugby as a serious sport. To identify the likely terrorists, it may have to be an issue where England, France, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Wales, Tonga or Argentina wield decisive power. Ummmmm…

For the full Catch 22 flavour of the oversight processes, turn to para 62 of the supportive notes. There, we find that “because of the operational sensitivity of the proposals, public consultation on the proposals was not undertaken.” But don’t worry: “To address the public interest in the area of privacy and to ensure the proposals are calibrated against appropriate oversight arrangements” consultation was carried out with, among others, the Privacy Commission.

Problem being, the Privacy Commission – unlike the good Dr Young – found plenty it didn’t like in the legislation and said so. “The Office of the Privacy Commission suggested there should be further strengthening of the Act to apply formal principles of proportionality, necessity and reasonableness to all security intelligence investigations, and to protect the privacy of third parties.” Did anyone heed them? No. It shunted them aside, with this dismissal: “These suggestions would be most effectively addressed in a longer term fundamental review of the Act.”

Bingo! Catch 22. You don’t ask the public about how they feel about their privacy being abridged for their own good – you ask a privacy expert on their behalf. And darn it, when that privacy expert says something about your legislation you don’t want to hear you put your hands over your ears and go ‘lah lah lah’ and say they’re not really talking about your legislation. Instead, you’ll consider their recommendations in the light of something else entirely, that being a full review that you then decline to have. Either now, or in the foreseeable.

As many have pointed out before, one of the main features of Catch 22 has been the combination of force with specious legalistic justification. In other words: ‘Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.’

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