21 Sep 2016

Police backdown on 'sinister' data control welcomed

9:07 am on 21 September 2016

A leading gang researcher who was blocked from accessing police information is pleased there has been a backdown on its "sinister" approach to controlling data.

Last year, University of Canterbury sociologist Jarrod Gilbert requested basic information about where incidents such as assaults happen, but was denied because of his gang links.

Jarrod Gilbert

Jarrod Gilbert Photo: University of Canterbury

He told RNZ there was "nothing controversial about that data whatsover".

"It could've been pulled out of the computer in 30 minutes and given to us. Instead it took 11 months.

"By which time, things got much worse for me, because they deemed I was unfit to even look at this uncontroversial data because of my association with gangs. You know, an association which is pretty well known. I wrote a book on gangs and spent six years researching them, I'd hardly make a secret of that."

The police apologised to him shortly after he went public last November - and last week put out a new policy for responding to external researchers' requests.

Dr Gilbert said the policy was now infinitely better than before.

"The most obvious improvements, of course, around some of the language. They've removed 'blacklisting' and 'detailing results' and this sort of sinister-type language that was in the research contracts previously.

"But much more importantly than that, they have now got a stated intent of more data to researchers and doing it in a timely manner.

"Because the fear was that they would change the wording of the contacts but the culture would remain the same. So they would kind of control it but not be quite as obvious with it. But if the wording that they're using now in their approach comes to pass, then this is an extremely positive development.

"In fairness to the police, they said we got this wrong and they've apologised to me. And said trust us, we're going to go away and fix it."

Dr Gilbert said the proof now would be in the weeks and months to come, to see how much information was actually released in the way that police said it was going to be.

'We're trying to make it easier for people'

Police said they were vowing to make almost anything available for research, but said requests should be in the public interest.

Deputy chief executive of strategy Mark Evans said in the past year, they had been working with Dr Gilbert, universities and other academics to make it easier for them to access to information.

He said it was now a principle-based policy, rather than a permissive one.

"We've invested in a range of improvements to make it easier for researchers to get access to the police data that they need. For example, we've assigned subject matter experts to the process and we've sought to speed up the way in which we turn requests for information around.

"We're trying to make it easier for people to get access to police data, while also acknowledging that we've got to respect individual privacy and other confidentiality requirements."

Mr Evans said they certainly want to engage with researchers to do this as quickly as possible, so they would look at individual requests.

"We get somewhere in the region of five to seven requests a week from researchers and others looking for information."

They were very happy with the progress they had made and were looking to develop that further, he said.

"I think the new policy will allow us to be even more collaborative with those people, and ensure that we can develop ideas and evidence in a way that's sort of mutually beneficial."

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