Friday, August 10, 2012

An interesting opinion

Part of the Ombudsman's website makeover is putting more opinions on-line, as recommended by the Law Commission. And there's an interesting one there dating from June, about access to police taser-cam footage [PDF]. Every taser contains a camera, which is automatically activated when the weapon is used to provide a record. So what happens when a journalist requests footage of a controversial incident in which a taser was used? The police refuse on privacy grounds, of course, even though the requester had obtained the consent of the taser victims.

Digging deeper, the police were concerned about whether the consent forms were real or forgeries (this seems to be about as credible as their sudden concern about the eligibility of FYI requesters who make controversial requests - i.e. driven by a desire for secrecy rather than a real concern with the law). But they also though that the footage should be withheld to protect privacy for the victims' own good, even when the victims had said otherwise. And then there's this bit;

Further, Police officers involved in the incident with Mr [A] advised that they did not want the information to be made available to TVNZ
...which is hardly surprising, given that it shows (or rather, doesn't, because they "accidentally" covered the camera) them tasering a mentally-ill man.

But it gets better. The Police, it turns out, have some rather unusual and utterly self-serving interpretations of the law:

From the Police submissions in this case, and the previous case, it is clear that Police concerns about release of taser camera footage extend beyond the issue of privacy of the individuals captured in the footage. Police have expressed the view that release of such footage will inevitably lead to adverse publicity thereby undermining public trust and confidence in the Police. In this regard, Police argued that section 6(c) would be a reason to refuse a request regardless of whether court proceedings were in train.
So, in the police's view, adverse publicity stemming from the public learning of their actions is a threat to the maintenance of the law. I guess "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" only applies to peasants, not to them.

The good news is that the Ombudsman told the police where to go on all of the above. Police do not, as a general rule, have privacy interests when performing their public functions, especially when those functions are being recorded specifically to provide accountability (there are some cases where they do have privacy interests in such recordings, but none apply here). Informed consent from subjects effectively waives their privacy interest, though the Ombudsman is interested in making sure that those subjects know what they are getting into (they did, and imposed conditions on the journalist over use of the footage, which is perfectly appropriate). And of course, the danger of adverse publicity is not a reason to withhold anything.

So, a victory for transparency - and not just for the request. Publishing this opinion has helped expose the police's attitude to the law - which is the first step to changing that attitude.