IPCA says Police searches after Christchurch massacre were unlawful

IPCA says Police searches after Christchurch massacre were unlawful

Anan Zaki
Wellington, July 14, 2020

IPCA Chair Judge Colin Doherty (RNZ Photo by Ben Strang)

Three Police searches that were carried out shortly after the Christchurch Mosque attacks on March 15, 2019 were unlawful, the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) has found.

The searches, made without a warrant, happened during an operation codenamed ‘Whakahaumanu’ to identify people of interest to national security following the attacks.

The three searches in question were all in Canterbury, weeks after the massacre.

Something about XYZ

One person, known as Mr X, became a person of interest after an anonymous call to CrimeStoppers, alleging that he was involved in white supremacy, anti-Muslim hate speech and racist behaviour.

Mr X had a historical mental health issue and had previously been a member of a Facebook group that had an association with a website describing itself as “far right-wing,”

Mr X had also posted comments indicating to Police that he might be opposed to the government’s gun law reforms.

The second person, known as Mr Y, came to attention after the Police received information that he had been posting far right material on Facebook. Both had firearms seized from their properties.

Police visited the third person, known as Mr Z, after Facebook posts caused concern about his mental well-being – and officers seized a bong from his property.

Superintendent John Price at Al Noor Mosque in March 2019

What the IPCA said

IPCA chair Judge Colin Doherty said that the officers should have had a warrant in all three cases.

“Police are required to obtain a warrant to make a search with this time to do so but they may exercise powers under the Search and Surveillance Act without a warrant in situations of agency. We found that in the three cases, there was not sufficient agency and they could have got a warrant,” he said.

The Authority received 13 complaints about the searches.

Judge Doherty also said that there had not been enough focus given to the searches, over what powers the police could or could not exercise.

The Authority did not make any recommendations.

“Search and surveillance and the exercise of warrants is bread and butter for police, so every Police Officer ought to know what they should do. We noted that in these cases, apologies had been given to the subjects of the searches,” he said.

The Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (COLFO), which helped some of the complainants, said that its members felt vindicated by the IPCA decision.

Major mistakes

COLFO Chair Michael Dowling said that the Police made major mistakes.

The Police in Christchurch after the March 15, 2019 attack (AFP Photo by Sanka Vidanagama/Nur)

“They are the enforcement power of our laws and so they need to act within the law whenever they act. In these events, it shows that perhaps the checks and safeties are not there, to make sure that they as enforcers of the law are not wound up in the emotion of an event,” he said.

Canterbury Police District Commander Superintendent John Price said that mistakes were made.

But he said that it was important to know the context around the time the searches were carried out, as after the terror attacks, the country had never been in an environment like it before.

“At the time, they were in a very heightened operational context. They were trying to eliminate or mitigate the risk of further violence and ensure public safety. That was their intent and that was their principles they were applying,” he said.

Superintendent Price said that the Police will learn from the findings.

“Laws are there to protect all people. and as such, we are absolutely always open to ensuring there are good checks and balances,” he said.

Published under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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