Don't give police more powers when quality under fire - Council

Giving police more powers at a time when the quality of police recruits has been called into question would be a worrying move, the Council for Civil Liberties says.

Police want the power to fingerprint people without the need to arrest or lay charges against them.

The proposal was among those presented at the first in a series of public meetings last night outlining possible changes in the review of the 1958 Police Act.

The new Act is expected to be passed into law next year.

Police would like to be able to use the latest technology -- which includes mobile fingerprint scanners and, in the future, eye scanners -- while working on the streets, for checking against the national database.

Chairman of the Council for Civil Liberties Michael Bott said this would be a concern.

"The ability for police to, in a sense, fingerprint anyone, not even for the suspicion of a crime is a worrying trend and it's got Orwellian overtones that should be resisted," he said.

"The fact is normal mum and dad kiwis going about their lawful business on the highway should not be subjected to fingerprint checks by the police.

" In a sense it reduces the entire population to being potential suspects in terms of police investigations."

Previously police had to have a person arrested and suspected of a crime before they took fingerprints, Mr Bott said.

With the standard of police recruits currently being called into question the competence of the people making the decision to fingerprint must be questioned, he said.

"In a situation where we've got worrying trends about the quality of the police the last thing you want to do is to water down the rights and protections of New Zealand citizens at this stage."

Mr Bott said one particular concern was that people could become suspects if fingerprints taken at the roadside were matched with "innocent fingerprints" found at crime scenes -- those left by people there for legitimate purposes.

"If you go to a dairy and buy some milk, for example, and a burglary or a robbery occurs shortly thereafter the police find your prints, put them on a database and if they (at a later time) stop you innocently you potentially could be a suspect."

The head of the Police Act Review, Superintendent Hamish McCardle, said the use of mobile scanners would speed up suspect identification.

"If the police can identify criminals more quickly at the roadside ... that means a person is taken into custody more quickly and prevented from committing another crime," he told Radio New Zealand.

"This is a really good example of where new technology and better legislation could make New Zealand safer."

Police would also like greater powers given to non-sworn police to search and arrest and a relaxation of the rules against the use of handcuffs.

Meetings have already been held in Christchurch and Whangarei and more are planned before public submissions close at the end of July.

- NZPA

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