Police “actively” targeted Shargin Stephens for investigation before he was fatally shot by police near a Rotorua shopping centre in 2016, an officer told a long-awaited coroner’s inquest on Monday.
Stephens, 35, was Tasered, pepper-sprayed then shot near Redwood Shopping Centre in Te Ngae on July 14, 2016, after he threatened police and members of the public with a long-handled thrasher, it has been previously reported.
He died 12 days later in Waikato Hospital.
An Independent Police Conduct Authority report on Stephens’ death released in 2017 found Stephens’ shooting was “legally justified” in “defence of [the officer] and members of the public”.
Issues with the 2017 report raised by Stephens’ family and the media, however, prompted a review of the authority’s investigation.
A second report, released last year, found “unreasonable and oppressive” bail checks on Stephens by police may have contributed to his actions on the day of his death.
Stephens had been on electronically monitored bail at his home and police checked on his compliance with bail conditions not to use alcohol or drugs 70 times over 38 days - sometimes more than once a day and overnight.
In the 2022 report, the authority recommended police make changes to the bail-monitoring regime.
Coroner Michael Robb began the inquest at Rotorua’s coronial offices on Monday by addressing five members of Stephen’s whānau who were present.
“This is a difficult day,” Robb said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
A police officer, whose name was suppressed, read a statement to the inquest saying Stephens “was deemed to be a person the police needed to actively target to prevent further community harm”.
The officer said that at the time of his arrest, Stephens was a member of a criminal group using vehicles, commonly Subarus, to steal cash and cigarettes in commercial burglaries.
“[The group] demanded a lot of attention. There was a lot of community harm therefore we put an operation together,” the officer said.
Stephens was arrested after police executed search warrants in the Rotorua area. He was charged with burglary, arson, unlawfully taking a motor vehicle, possession of firearms and ammunition and drug-related offending.
“With that criminal group, our priority was to actually get them off the street and stop them from offending,” the officer said.
Under examination by counsel for the police, Amanda Gordon, the officer said multiple bail checks were carried out on Stephens to ensure he was complying with the drug and alcohol conditions of his release.
“Experience has shown the police that it can be common for persons on bail to breach their conditions of bail and to do what they want after they have been checked. It is for this reason that more than one check is often conducted.”
Under examination by Susan Gray, assistant counsel appearing for Stephens’ whānau, the officer agreed there was no need for a residential check when someone was on electronically monitored bail as their whereabouts were recorded.
“There were non-association [conditions], which would have been harder to monitor, to be fair,” the police officer said.
“But the main reasons [for the checks] were the drug and alcohol restrictions.”
Gray said of the 70 checks carried out on Stephens, 21 were recorded with notes relating to Stephens’ sobriety.
“Just because someone hasn’t been breathalysed or drug tested doesn’t mean an assessment wasn’t taken,” the officer said.
“It’s quite common for staff to note the breach rather than the compliance. If we were to go about our business and make notes of everything that was correct that would be very, very time-consuming.”
While the officer said it would be “best practice” for police to note their observations in the bail management system he thought the practice was “just not habit” for frontline staff.
“Mr Stephens and his associates were a significant criminal problem for us as a community and one of the only things we have available to us once someone is granted bail through the courts is to try and limit their movement and actions via bail checks.”
Gray asked the officer if police sometimes checked people on bail “just to send a message to them”.
“There has to be a reason to do a check,” Gray said.
“But the whole premise of that is to say, ‘We are doing our jobs to make sure you are conforming with your bail’.”
Gray asked again if police were trying to send “some sort of message to Shargin” by checking on him daily.
“That is how bail management works, so yes,” the officer said.
King’s counsel Chris Gudsell, who was assisting the coroner, asked the officer if he had “comprehensively reviewed” the Independent Police Conduct Authority’s findings before the inquest.
“I briefly looked over the document,” the officer said.
The inquest into Shargin Stephens’ death is set to continue until November 29.
Maryana Garcia is a regional reporter writing for the Rotorua Daily Post and the Bay of Plenty Times. She covers local issues, health and crime.