Officers are constantly balancing the rights of individuals against those of the community and the rights of victims against those of offenders.
When it comes to application of the law, society relies on police officers. They are tasked to calculate and then act.
In a perfect world, the law provides the foundation for their decisions, but we don’t live in a perfect society and while officers are expected to, and mostly do, act with impartiality, that’s not always the case, either. When officers don’t seem to get the balance right, it is inevitably challenged and can often lead to significant consequences for officers, for communities and offenders.
Case in point: The OPC/IPCA report argues that photos are always biometric data and therefore subject to the Privacy Act. This creates major issues for how police gather intelligence.
This hurdle is further complicated by the report’s view that a person cannot voluntarily supply information such as a photograph or their fingerprints. Since the report’s release, the deputy privacy commissioner has doubled down on this, claiming these two prohibitions on police practices will not impede police in their duties to solve and prevent crime, and thereby protect communities.
This is a naive position, one that our members find perplexing and one that needs to be challenged.
As you will read in our lead article this month, the direction to officers to stop obtaining voluntary fingerprints, and destroy those already held, is already having a negative impact on victims of crime.
Voluntary fingerprints have been game changers in identifying youth offenders, and in my time as an OC of a burglary squad, they proved to be our greatest tool. Yet the OPC/IPCA report relies on anecdotal information on how they are obtained – information that is not the norm, according to the enquiries I have made.
Another aspect of this situation we now find ourselves in is that fingerprints volunteered by young people, with agreement from a parent or guardian, are also preventative; if Police have your prints on record, you are highly likely to be caught if those prints match those taken from a crime scene. That’s a powerful deterrent and one that parents have previously signed up to as a way of stopping their children getting deeper and deeper into crime. It’s called early intervention, and it works.
The Government has acknowledged the value of early intervention initiatives and wraparound support for at-risk youth, but what’s the point if police can’t identify these kids before it’s too late?
From the perspective of the wider community, this report will also let down hundreds, if not thousands, of victims of crime.
When there is an uproar about the drop in crime clearances – particularly burglaries of which only 8.7% currently result in court action – I hope critics go looking for answers from the OPC and the IPCA, not Police.
I consider the OPC and the IPCA have missed the balance required in this area of solving and preventing crime. They fail our members by taking away a key crime-solving tool, which in turn fails victims and young offenders. With this skewed balance, no one wins.