Amateur sleuths embrace technology

Witnesses and victims are playing Sherlock Holmes as smartphones and social media put crime-fighting powers in their hands.

Police say a quick-thinking mother's use of a smartphone helped identify a suspect after her 14-year-old daughter complained she was groped by a man at Te Rauparaha Arena swimming pool in Porirua on Sunday afternoon.

The teenager told police that the man - who was carrying his baby while swimming - fondled her breast underwater. She hopped out of the pool and told her mother, who used her phone to snap a picture of the man, and contacted police.

When police arrived, they photographed the man again, and he will be interviewed about the alleged indecent assault.

Detective Kelvyn Parry said that, in another case currently being investigated, a woman helped police identify her alleged sex attacker - a stranger - after she recognised photos of him on a Facebook page.

Wellington district prevention manager Inspector Mike Hill said people seemed to have instinctively recognised the potential of filming crime and emergencies using smartphones.

"There is a generation of people that are doing that already - their first thought is, ‘Oh, I'm going to put that on social media'."

Smartphone footage was used as evidence when a gang member attacked an off-duty policeman in the Hutt Valley last November.

The policeman's 15-year-old daughter, in the back seat, filmed the assault on her phone and, faced with clear evidence, the man pleaded guilty, Hill said.

Visiting British criminologist Professor Gloria Laycock reportedly told a justice symposium in April that the international fall in crime rates was due more to innovations in science and technology than to political strategy.

In February, police said a carload of people appeared to have halted a public assault on three children in Upper Hutt when they drove by filming the incident.

Technology was particularly useful when footage was provided to police, Hill said.

"If a crime has occurred, the value of video evidence or a photo is just that much more proof - images are a good evidential tool and it certainly adds better corroboration for what one party might be claiming in an incident, or to absolve someone, or to identify people at the scene."

However, smartphone footage would not override the traditional suspect lineup, he said, as positive identification was essential to the judicial process.

Police say it is also being used against them. A source said Wellington officers were increasingly being filmed by witnesses when they arrived at volatile situations, particularly unruly parties.

Police National Headquarters said it had noticed the public's embrace of technology as a crime-fighting tool, adding that it was closely following international developments in video and image sharing between the public and police.

The Dominion Post