Two-year search for 'ghost crimes' truth

By Eugene Bingham

Police claim misunderstanding behind failure to reveal altered burglary statistics

The police officers include John Tims, Peter Marshall and Mike Bush. Photo / NZH
The police officers include John Tims, Peter Marshall and Mike Bush. Photo / NZH

It arrived in March 2012 and came with an apology.

An anonymous letter in faded ink, the last line read: "Sorry the printer ran out of ink and I had closed the document without saving before realising the print was not good so hope you are able to read it. Obvious reasons why the doc is not saved."

The allegation at the top explained why the writer had been so careful: "Investigate Police - Fraudulent Crime Statistics From Counties Manukau South".

The next two pages contained allegations, in part about how crime statistics had been altered in one area of the Counties Manukau police district. "Burglary codes were changed to theft or any other minor offence to allow the area to achieve the best crime reduction stats for the district," the letter read.

"How would anyone know what the real facts are when the figures are falsified, this is fraud and the staff changing codes should be held accountable."

The whistle-blower's cautious approach was because these were explosive allegations.

Accurate crime statistics are a vital platform on which many decisions are made — about policing methods, policy and funding. The allegation that they were being manipulated was serious indeed.

The handling of these allegations over the next two years is an insight into police administration, the oversight of the force, and accountability.

Anonymous claims are always difficult to deal with, but there was enough detail in the letter to convince me this was worth investigating. On March 30, 2012, I sent an Official Information Act request asking Counties Manukau district commander Superintendent John Tims for documents relating to any allegations about the falsifying of crime stats.

Almost two weeks later, Tims asked me to meet "to clarify the scope of the request". He was friendly and helpful when we met on April 16, acknowledging that they were serious allegations and promising to keep me informed of investigations which were under way. And so I waited.


Mike Bush had been district commander during part of the period when it was alleged the statistics had been fudged. Photo / Sarah Ivey

So, what investigations were under way? And how widespread were the allegations? It transpired others knew about the allegations around the same time, including the local MP and then-Minister of Justice, Judith Collins.

Three anonymous letters were also sent to the Independent Police Conduct Authority, though it simply referred them to the Commissioner of Police, Peter Marshall. Marshall's deputy at the time was Mike Bush, who had been district commander during part of the period when it was alleged the statistics had been fudged.

Bush was Counties Manukau district commander from 2008 until March 2011, but Tims has said responsibility for how crime was recorded did not lie with Bush.

The anonymous letter of March 2012 said an inquiry had already been carried out and police implicated had moved on.

The inspector in charge of the Counties Manukau south area had moved to the district headquarters, one senior sergeant had moved to Wellington, and another had resigned.

The timing set out in the letter clashes with the timeline later set out by police. According to Tims, the review began in early April, after the TV3 OIA request arrived. Inspector Keith Brady, from the district's professional standards office, carried out the review and filed his report on May 25, 2012.

A summary of his report says Brady found the Counties Manukau South area had a pattern of making burglaries disappear from the statistics — about 700 of them. Between July 2009 and July 2012 about 15-30 per cent of offences that started as burglaries were "recoded".

In other words, burglaries became a range of other, lesser, crimes. Sometimes, they were changed simply to "incidents".

Brady's report triggered an employment inquiry, ordered by Assistant Commissioner Allan Boreham.

The employment investigation took six months, finishing on December 6, 2012. The outcome? Tims wouldn't say, telling 3rd Degree it was confidential.


Inspector Keith Brady found the Counties Manukau South area had a pattern of making burglaries disappear from the statistics. Photo / NZPA

To recap, the Brady review was completed in May 2012 and the employment investigation was finished seven months later.

How was the OIA request, filed by 3rd Degree in March 2012, being handled by Tims and the police?

There were emails between myself and his communications adviser about the investigation throughout 2012 but it wasn't until this year that things started happening.

On April 8 this year, I emailed Tims' communications adviser saying: "I just wondered if the results of this investigation we discussed in 2012 [have] been resolved." A flurry of emails followed, and Tims and others — including Brady — promised I would get a reply soon.

In June, Tims said the reply was awaiting "executive review".

And then, on July 14, the Herald on Sunday broke the story, laying out how police had altered statistics.

Tims later confirmed the newspaper had received the information he had promised me — but blamed a leak. "I appreciate you will be somewhat frustrated by today's story," he said in an email.

"I should explain that the Herald on Sunday story has arisen because they have obtained a copy of a summary report. I stress they have not obtained this report from police through any official channel."

He was right: it was frustrating. But such is life. The story was out there and that was what was important. What emerged next was simply extraordinary.


Superintendent John Tims, Counties Manukau district commander. Photo / NZH

In June last year, Brady had written a "job sheet", basically a memo that goes on a police file, describing a meeting which had taken place with Tims to discuss 3rd Degree's OIA request.

After a tip-off, the Herald on Sunday requested the Brady "job sheet" under urgency last week. Without requesting this document, the information is likely to have remained hidden, and certainly would not have been released voluntarily by police.

It read: "Superintendent Tims advised that he had discussed the ... request from [Bingham] with Deputy Commissioner Bush and Assistant Commissioner Boreham.

"He had been advised to let the request sit and when and if [Bingham] followed up with a request the matter would be addressed then.

"The direction to me was not to respond to the Official Information Act request and file the file as it is."

The implication in the job sheet is quite clear to me: I believe Tims, Boreham and Bush — now Commissioner — had decided to bury 3rd Degree's request.

This job sheet — by an inspector, no less — suggests a move to hide information which went to the top of the police.

Nonetheless, the job sheet lay dormant on the police file for more than a year. Nothing happened until it arrived on the desk of Deputy Commissioner Viv Rickard just before the Herald on Sunday story. Rickard set about establishing the truth.

Bush was firm, telling Rickard: "I confirm that I did not give any direction on this matter whatsoever to Superintendent Tims or Assistant Commissioner Boreham in any respect, for obvious reasons ie any perception of conflict of interest. I did ask to be kept briefed on this matter."

Boreham was just as adamant he'd given no such instruction.

If both men were so definite, how on Earth did an inspector come to the conclusion that there had been an instruction from the top — a conclusion he felt compelled to place on the file?

Tims says it was all a misunderstanding. "It is my belief that Mr Brady misinterpreted a conversation which was focused on the progress of the investigation," Tims said last week.

"I told Inspector Brady that no further action was required in relation to the Official Information Act request as I had already met with the requester on April 16, 2012 and therefore believed his request had already been complied with by way of a verbal briefing."

This explanation from Tims accords with what he told Deputy Commissioner Rickard. In an email to Rickard, he said neither Bush nor Boreham had given him any instruction to ignore my OIA request.

He confirmed that he had met me and said: "I told him there was no such report in existence ... regarding the falsification of criminal statistics [to the] best of my knowledge. However I did tell him that as a result of the anonymous letter an investigation would be commenced with regard to the contents of the letter."

He then added: "In closing, the original OIA request made by [Bingham] was impossible to comply with because ... there was no such investigation or report when the request was originally made." Sounds straight forward — except I don't believe it is because it's not what he and his staff were telling me, and what has emerged.


Deputy Commissioner Viv Rickard. Photo / File

All the way through this process, I thought I was being dealt with in good faith. But knowing what I know now I believe there was a concerted effort to keep me from getting hold of documents revealing the altering of statistics.

The clear impression from what Tims has said to Rickard is that he believed my request had finished with our meeting in April 2012.

But that contradicts what his communications manager told me in October 2012 when I asked for "any update with regards to this request, which we met about in April".

The response was: "In regards to the review, it's still underway. [Superintendent] Tims estimates another six weeks till it's completed. As promised once the investigation is complete we will invite you to discuss the findings."

Let's be clear: far from having left me with the impression that my inquiries had been dealt with, Tims was promising to get back to me. Remember, he never did — things only started happening when I went back to him more than a year later.

As to his assertion it had been impossible to respond to my request because the report did not exist, I'm not convinced either.

Sure, the Brady report didn't exist at the time of the original request — though I was supposedly going to be told about the outcome.

But I hadn't asked for the Brady report — I'd asked for "any reports, memorandums or emails pertaining to any internal investigation of allegations about the alleged falsifying of crime statistics" within the Counties Manukau District.

And it turns out allegations over burglary statistics dated back to at least November 2009. An email about concerns in Manurewa was sent to a number of police.

The email had been forwarded to Bush, district commander at the time, with a note that it was an update for him on the "recoding situation at Manurewa". Police this week said it was possible this was a reference to a verbal briefing.

Tims told the Herald this week that regular checks in 2009 had revealed "atypical patterns" in Manurewa, but further inquiries found "reasonable explanations".

Emails, regular checks and inquiries — all things covered by my 2012 OIA, you'd think — and yet Tims says there was nothing he could release. As recently as this month, Brady said it was his understanding Tims had spoken to Bush and Boreham about whether to respond to my OIA request; all three men say Brady's understanding is wrong.

So who, then, was behind the decision that I would not be given the information once the report was complete? Tims takes responsibility: "I told Inspector Brady that he did not have to do anything on the OIA request." He maintains it was a misunderstanding.

A superintendent has admitted telling an inspector he did not need to respond further to a request for information about an issue of public interest in the district he oversees.

Does all this matter? You could say I should have chased up the request earlier. I wish I had. But when a district commander "promises" to get back to you, the last thing you expect is that he tells a staff member there's no need to respond. I'm left wondering about police attitude to freedom of information and accountability.

Perhaps it's best to leave the last word to the anonymous letter-writer: "Please investigate and report on all the misdoings in the hierarchy of police management practices. It needs to be exposed that they are not squeaky clean and ... meanwhile the rank and file man on the street doing the hard yards are paying the price."


How the story unfolded

2009-2012
• 700 "ghost crime" burglaries in the Counties Manukau south area are recoded to less serious offences.

2012
• Anonymous complaint sent to the Independent Police Conduct Authority and to TV3 alleging corruption in the Counties Manukau south area. Producer Eugene Bingham requests details under the Official Information Act. Declined as the investigation is ongoing. Staff disciplined. Justice Minister Judith Collins advised.

June 2013
• Inspector Keith Brady is told by superintendent John Tims to let Bingham's request sit.
• He registers this in a job sheet, which sits unquestioned for more than a year.

April 2014
• Bingham requests the information again under the Official Information Act.

July 2014
• The Herald on Sunday breaks the ghost crime story.

September 2014
• Source reveals the existence of the incriminating Brady job sheet.
• Job sheet released to the Herald on Sunday.

- Herald on Sunday

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