OPINION: If the results in the first 24 hours are anything to go by, the new wanted persons website set up by police will be a roaring success.
The site was launched last Wednesday morning and, by the end of the day, two of the 31 people whose pictures and details initially appeared on it had handed themselves in and a third had been located and arrested.
Those listed on the site are there either because they are wanted in connection with alleged crimes including some serious offences or they have failed to appear in court to answer charges, breached parole or supervision conditions or, in a couple of cases, been recalled to prison. Police also intend to post images of people they want to identify, either because they are possible suspects in a specific investigation or potential witnesses who could help identify offenders.
Police deserve congratulations for an initiative that uses modern technology to harness the help of the public to solve crime and track down alleged offenders who are often deliberately avoiding the law. In an age in which people are able to move very quickly from one location to another, harnessing the immediacy of the internet is a useful way to keep the public informed and safe.
Not everybody is pleased, however. Council of Civil Liberties spokesman Batch Hales has criticised the website, claiming it could smear the reputation of people who are named and pictured on it, but who have wrongly been identified as possible offenders. He told Radio New Zealand last week that people viewing the site will automatically assume those on it are guilty, and that police are effectively condemning people before they have had a chance to go to court.
His criticisms are unfounded. While it is true that the police must always be careful when publicising the identities of people they are seeking, their priority must rightly be the safety of the public. Police have long used the media to bring in alleged offenders to achieve that goal without compromising the right to due process.
The television programme Police Ten 7 is a case in point. Police Commissioner Peter Marshall announced on Friday that the 20 episodes screened so far this year had resulted in the arrest of 22 wanted people. They include high-risk convicted child-sex offender Brian Conroy, who was on the run after breaching an extended supervision order and who was apprehended as a result of information from the public after he was featured on Thursday night. Conroy was also featured on the wanted website.
Mr Hales' claim that people who appear on the site have somehow been branded guilty or denied the opportunity to defend themselves also does not stand scrutiny. More than half the 31 people on the original list were there precisely because they had failed to appear for scheduled hearings after being arrested and charged. Many of the rest, particularly those in breach of orders, will be fully aware they are wanted by the police.
Far from denying them their day in court, the police are in fact actively trying to find them to ensure they get the opportunity to exercise that very right.
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