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The privacy clampdown on voluntary fingerprints is turning back the clock on preventing and solving crime. Ellen Brook reports.

When Brian Gundesen heard last month that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) was ordering Police to stop taking voluntary fingerprints of young people, he couldn’t believe it. “I was completely gobsmacked,” says the 87-year-old retired police officer.

The strength of his reaction is rooted in a record 52 years of work as a fingerprint officer, with the distinction of being instrumental in the introduction of the voluntary fingerprint system in the early 1990s.

“I know the value of voluntary fingerprints.”

Over the years, he says, they have led to the identification of thousands of offenders and acted as a deterrent to hundreds of other young people.

Gundy, as he is known, wasn’t the only one dismayed by the OPC ruling, which also bans the photographing of young people, including in public places, unless linked to a live investigation.

The Police Association on behalf of members has challenged the commission’s interpretation of the Police Act on the taking and storing of voluntary fingerprints provided with the permission of a parent, guardian or caregiver.

Although Police is complying with the OPC directives, Commissioner Andrew Coster has clearly said some of the recommendations will hamper officers’ ability to prevent and solve crimes, particularly the sort of youth crime that is plaguing businesses across the country.

A compliance notice from the OPC was issued in December 2021, with Police staff being told that, effective immediately, voluntary fingerprints could no longer be requested or taken and all existing fingerprints and photos unrelated to live investigations must be destroyed.

Since then, Police has begun the process of destroying thousands of fingerprints and has deleted thousands of photos, in some cases having to hire extra staff to do the work.

The OPC/IPCA report noted there has been a lack of awareness in Police of its obligations under the Privacy Act.

Frontline officer and association Region 4 director Constable Paul Hampton says he understands that the OPC is just doing its job. “All the OPC is doing is interpreting and applying the rules of the Privacy Act to policing, but the act has a very narrow focus.”

The OPC’s remit does not consider the larger crime landscape, even as its directives coincide with a spate of youth offending and the Government announcing wraparound support for young people.

Police Association president Chris Cahill says that will be difficult if you can’t identify who the young people at risk of offending are.

Young offenders are rarely charged, and all associated evidence is routinely destroyed, which is why voluntary prints, given with the authority of a parent or guardian, have previously been useful.

“These fingerprints can be used to solve crimes and are also a deterrent to crime as the young people know their prints are on record. Parents know this too,” says Paul. “The way it used to work was, if I arrested a 16-year-old for stealing a car and doing a ram raid, I could take their fingerprints and take a photograph. These could be retained by Police if we proceeded with a charge, but on most occasions the matter would be resolved at a family group conference, so we couldn’t keep those records.”

The alternative, says Paul, “was to talk to the parents or caregivers and say, for example, we know your kid is out a lot and doing burglaries. We all want to keep him out of trouble. If we get some voluntary prints and he knows we’ve got them, that might deter him from doing burglaries. Most parents say, yes, we want to stop him from doing that.”

Another association member, Sergeant Mike Membery, told Police News that the taking of identifying details has had the effect of reducing criminal activity by several offenders, especially when they have strong support from whānau, and voluntary photos and fingerprints can also clear youth from being suspects.

Elimination fingerprints, which are given voluntarily, can negate a person’s involvement in a crime, or prove their presence at a scene that may support their account of events.

Chris says common sense has gone in the shredder along with the prints.

“If your house is burgled, I couldn’t ask you to provide voluntary fingerprints to be used as elimination prints to compare with the crime scene prints. It’s bizarre for the IPCA/OPC report to say that if it’s not mentioned in the Police Act, you can’t do it. Police have been doing it for decades and it has solved hundreds of crimes.

“Now, if the fingerprint section were to receive voluntary prints from a young person that matched a crime scene, that information cannot be passed on to the officers involved.”

A young person who gets away with one offence and who knows there is no record of their prints is more likely to keep offending.

It’s a scenario that Gundy knows well.

It was back in the early 1990s that he was tasked with processing fingerprints that had come through to PNHQ from Hastings where there had been a spate of juvenile offending.

Gundy got the go-ahead to go through three years of fingerprint lifts and negatives from the area. It was mainly a quality control exercise to check they had been correctly created and labelled. There were thousands and it took him three weeks, but that’s the meat and potatoes of being a fingerprint specialist.

After years of looking at prints, Gundy had developed an excellent memory for the intimate details of a fleshy whorl. “On the way through, I was able to say, for example, that’s Joe Bloggs’ print that I saw on this other job. I put them to one side. Because I went through so many, I was able to make up composite sets of the same fingerprints and search again through our main collection to see whether this Joe Bloggs had a record.”

He didn’t, because this was a juvenile offender.

“I rang the boss in Hastings. I was able to tell him what area this person had been operating in and he arranged to get his troops there to do some investigations. About three weeks later, I got a phone call to say they had picked up five guys in that area.

“With permission from their parents, they took voluntary fingerprints that were faxed through to us. One guy, quite cocky, was 14 at the time and had previously been
dealt with by police when he was 10, but no fingerprints were taken then.”

The fingerprint evidence showed that from the age of 10, he had done 109 burglaries.

Solving that job was just the start for Gundy. Realising the value of the voluntary prints, he sent a proposal to Police for voluntary fingerprints to be requested more often. “It went to the legal section, and they had it for about six months before we were told it was okay to use the form we had supplied, as long as we got the approval from the parents, guardians or caregivers.”

More jobs began to be solved. “It was like turning on a tap,” he says. “Police could speak to groups of kids hanging around, take them home to their parents who said they didn’t want their sons growing up to be criminals. They were happy to agree to fingerprints being taken, especially if it would clear up any mess they might have gotten into.”

This was the start of the voluntary fingerprint system and, as far as police officers knew, it was legal, and they certainly knew it worked.

In another case, Gundy identified prints taken at the scene of an electrical store burglary, in which $3000 worth of goods were stolen, as belonging to a child of no more than seven years old. “I’d had that on my desk for four years, mounted on a piece of cardboard, before some fingerprints were faxed through from a group of six juveniles in the same area. I dug out the card and it matched one of them. It turned out that what had been happening was that the Mongrel Mob were putting kids through windows to steal.”

He says the resolution stats using voluntary fingerprints were so good that they were reported weekly to the then police minister George Hawkins.

Meanwhile, in 2022, the cull of Police fingerprint and photo archives continues and the form for consent for voluntary prints has been removed from circulation.

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