A student who caught a man stalking her and taking dozens of inappropriate photos of her as she shopped in an Auckland pharmacy says she feels let down by police who told her they could do nothing about it because it happened in a public place.
The 23-year-old woman, who we will call Sarah, confronted the man and demanded to see his phone, which she says showed nearly 60 photos of her, which she described as "predatory" and "disturbing".
The man had used his phone camera to zoom in on different parts of her body and face.
A video she posted of her scrolling through his phone camera gallery and confronting the man has gone viral on social media and has been viewed more than 100,000 times, with many praising her for her bravery.
But the incident, which took place last week, has left her angry and frustrated.
Sarah had been shopping with a friend at Chemist Warehouse at St Lukes when she noticed the man following her.
"He was in every aisle that we were in and at first I didn't think much of it until we got to the last aisle and I saw him have his phone up against his chest and so I approached him and I said 'I know you're taking photos or videos of me, let me see'. He completely denied it."
She raised her voice and began demanding the man show her his phone and eventually he opened up his phone, she said.
"His phone didn't have a password so when he swiped up it was on the camera app and as soon as I saw the camera app I said 'Go on your gallery' and when I saw my photos I took his phone off him. I literally just grabbed it," Sarah said.
"I knew what to expect in his gallery but I thought it would be just one or two photos and then when I went onto the gallery there was about 40-60 photos of me in every single aisle. They were close-ups of me, zoomed-in photos - like on my face and different parts of my body and I got really mad."
From scrolling through his photo gallery, Sarah believed the man had been following her for about 20 minutes.
"I held onto his phone and I was just shook so I proceeded to delete the photos. I deleted about 30 and then I was like 'Why am I deleting this? This is evidence right here. I shouldn't be deleting this'. That's when I started recording him."
She was approached by staff but their response made her feel unsupported and unsafe, she said.
"They were close ups of me, zoomed in photos - like on my face and different parts of my body and I got really mad."
"They asked me 'Ma'am, what's going on?' and I showed them the phone and I said 'This is not ok. What are you guys going to do? Are you going to trespass him? You guys need to call the police. This is not ok'. Because at that point I was just furious. I was mad and I just couldn't control my voice.
"And they were apologising on his behalf and they were all talking in their own language and speaking to him in their own language, even though they all spoke English. So I said 'Don't speak your language, I'm right here. I don't know what you guys are saying'."
Staff apologised to her on behalf of the man but did not ask him to leave the store, she said.
When she and other customers who had witnessed the event asked staff to call the police, staff told her she would need to report the incident to the police herself, she said.
Chemist Warehouse has refused to comment.
Sarah said she left the store and reported the incident to police and handed over the man's phone as evidence.
Police told her they would speak to the man but they could not take any further action because the man took the photos in a public place, she said.
'Not an offence'
In a statement to First Up, police confirmed the event, saying they had received a report of a male acting suspiciously at a St Lukes shop on the evening of Monday, July 20.
"On assessment of the report it involved photographs being taken in a public place which is not an offence in of itself. Police are not aware of any objectionable material involved in this matter.
"No charges have been laid, however the man involved has been identified and spoken to by police. He was advised he should seek approval before taking photos of people in public without their approval."
First Up asked police to clarify its threshold for what it deemed "objectionable material" but it did not respond to that question.
Instead, in a further statement, police said "it encouraged the reporting of any suspicious behaviour of that nature and if police became aware of an identified individual who may be engaging in this behaviour on more than one occasion, it would assess their motivation and whether any other offences are being committed".
Sensible Sentencing Trust victims and law advocate Jess McVicar said while the response from police was technically correct it could deter more victims of similar incidents coming forward.
"By them declining that there is anything that's gone wrong in this case and they cannot do anything further, that woman will just now feel uneasy and as if she won't be able to go forward if something happens again and that's a real concern," McVicar said.
"That's a real concern around the community being able to feel safe as well. The victim's rights and the victim's safety seem to be overridden here."
McVicar said it was horrendous that nothing could be done about the incident.
"It actually needs to be investigated further. We don't know how many people this man is actually taking photos of. Was that just a one-off incident? Or is he doing this quite often to other people? Does he just hang around in that same area taking photos of women? This could just be a low-level part of his offending but we don't know because it hasn't actually been fully investigated."
McVicar said the police response does not make victims in the community feel safe enough to come forward.
"What was he going to do with these photos of her? If she didn't get his phone and then he went and put those photos somewhere online then that then becomes a breach of the Digital Harm Act.
"Who knows where the photos of her could've ended up? And that's the scary part about it."
Other women report similar experiences
Sarah said she had since received hundreds of messages from other women claiming similar experiences.
In the video she posted, the man can be viewed telling Sarah he's married with children and apologising to her.
Sarah said she still feels angry about the incident.
"I still think back and I feel like 'Did they want the situation to escalate? Did the cops want him to follow me home and do something and then they would maybe charge him?' I felt like there was nothing more that I could do but spread awareness because no one wanted to help me.
"These people get to walk freely. We don't know if they're doing it to girls younger than me and girls who can't speak up and defend themselves. I put it out there so people can see and know that they should be careful."
McVicar said police needed to do more to better protect victims of these sorts of incidents.
"The bar is set so high that the victims just get completely sidelined and it's becoming dangerous because this man, we don't know this, but he could know where she shops, when she shops - he could be following her, he could've been stalking her for a while, who knows? So it just becomes dangerous.
"A lot more investigation needs to be put in place around these types of crimes and these types of offending and it needs to be taken seriously. Victims need to have a higher threshold in our system than what they currently do."
Where to get help:
• If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
• If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334.
• Alternatively contact your local police station
• If you have been abused, remember it's not your fault.