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Anonymity not a police privilege

1 March 2004

Inching its way up Parliament's Order Paper is an opposition initiative that would transform police into a protected species. The Police Complaints Authority (Conditional Name Protection) Amendment Bill stands in the name of National Port Waikato MP Paul Hutchison. Its strongest backer is the police union, upset by the public naming of constable Keith Abbott by two newspapers after he shot and killed Waitara man Steven Wallace. National and a union make very odd bedfellows.

If enacted, the bill would suppress the identity of a police officer who has had to use a firearm against someone they deem to be an offender, at least till any Police Complaints Authority inquiry is complete or the courts have dealt with any criminal charges. Police - along with every other public servant - have no such protection now. Neither should they.

When the NZ Herald went to court almost four years ago to assert the right to publish details of the Waitara copper's identity should it wish to do so, the judge who ruled in its favour said there was no legitimate privacy interest for a police officer carrying out his public duty in a public place. Mr Hutchinson disagrees. So do the Police Association and some MPs on the select committee considering the bill.

One - a member of United Future's motley crew - goes so far as to argue that news organisations should suppress information to which he objects. NZ First is toying with the concept of shackling Internet sites that break New Zealand laws or conventions. The world-wide web's essential anarchy renders that idea nonsensical.

One of the stranger parts of the bill is its concentration on deaths caused by firearms. Is anyone run over by a police car or who dies after a police chase on the Auckland motorway any less dead than someone felled by a police-issue gun?

But the bigger question is whether members of the police, on whom we rely to maintain law and order, should have an automatic right to anonymity if they find themselves in the dreadful position of having to shoot someone. That they sometimes face just such a situation and that it is still rare ensures the shooting will hit the headlines. Heaven forbid it become so commonplace that newspapers relegate it - if they report it at all - to a page 10 brief.

It is worth remembering that overseas - notably, in Australia and the United States, with its First Amendment to the Constitution - the identities of police involved in armed incidents are not hidden. In this country, a 60-year-old convention has meant that news organisations voluntarily withhold the name of a police officer involved in a shooting unless there is compelling public interest not to do so. Those who breached the convention in the Wallace case learned the ferocity of public disapproval. But there will always be times when it is right to publicly name the copper involved - in a newspaper or in Parliament.

Our judges have had cause in recent years to reiterate the importance of open justice. The Hutchison bill not only potentially breaches section 14 of the Bill of Rights, about freedom of expression, it would also create a special category of New Zealander that only police can inhabit. Openness is the enemy of misuse of power, of corruption and of systemic abuse. So keeping secret a police officer's identity should be the exception, not the rule.

Dominion Post Editorial
The Dominion Post
© Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2004

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