Police criticised over Roast Busters communication

ROAST BUSTERS: Two members of the group Joseph Parker, 18, and Beraiah Hales, 17.
ROAST BUSTERS: Two members of the group Joseph Parker, 18, and Beraiah Hales, 17.

Police mishandling of the Roast Busters case in the media has "seriously undermined" the trust the public and sexual abuse victims had in police, a lawyer says.

The comments come after a review of police handling of publicity around the Roast Busters found police misled the public, but not intentionally.

The Roast Busters were a group of West Auckland men, understood to be aged 17 and 18, who boasted online about their sexual exploits with drunk and underage females.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) this morning published its report on police handling of media inquiries after the story broke in November last year.

Auckland lawyer Catriona MacLennan said that during the past decade the public had become aware of a history of police mishandling sexual abuse cases.

While police claimed to have "changed", cases like the Roast Busters saga added to the cumulative picture that police had not improved their handling of sexual abuse cases, she said.

The IPCA found that due to a "collective breakdown in communication", owing to "other commitments and time pressure", no individual officer could be blamed for the inaccurate information provided to the public.

"When the story first broke, the media approached police for comment about their knowledge of this group and details of the police investigation," the report said.

"It became apparent over the following days that the information originally provided by police to the media was incorrect."

Initial statements claimed that despite a "full and thorough" investigation, prosecution was not possible without a formal complaint from a victim.

It later emerged four girls came forward over incidents involving the group between 2011 and 2012. One of those girls, aged 13, had gone through the formal complaint process.

MacLennan said she was "very shocked" when Detective Inspector Bruce Scott said none of the girls had been "brave enough" to come forwards to make a formal complaint in the Roast Busters case.

That was an "appalling" statement, which again put the onus on the victim, she said.

"It's a concerning indication of ongoing police attitude in that area," the lawyer said.

The IPCA report said the false information would have had an impact on all of the young women who had had some contact with police, in particular the woman who gave the video evidence.

"Understandably she was confused and upset by the information being provided by police as she had in fact made a formal statement to police," it said.

MacLennan said it was "very concerning" police comments at the time gave the public and other sexual abuse victims and survivors the impression that police could only lay charges if a formal complaint was made.

Police Minister Anne Tolley said she welcomed the report's findings.

"The report confirms that there was a communication breakdown within police," she said.

"Although not deliberate, this was disappointing and the commissioner personally apologised to me at the time for this mistake."

It was "vital" both the public and victims of crime had trust and confidence in the police, "which is why they must do everything they can to provide accurate information".

Tolley disagreed with the report claims that the error was "systemic".

"This is an isolated case and in most cases, the police deal with hundreds of thousands of victims every year and in those cases they get it right," she said.

"In this case, they go it wrong. It's a good opportunity for them to learn, and they are serious about becoming more victim-focused."

Tolley said she was awaiting the outcome of the IPCA's review of the criminal investigation, and acknowledged it couldn't be released until Operation Clover had been concluded.

IPCA chairman, Judge Sir David Carruthers, said maintaining public trust and confidence should be "top priority" for police.

He said that although no police employee made a deliberate decision to mislead, time should have been taken to obtain the correct details from police files in response to questions from the media.

"The provision of inaccurate information was compounded by the fact that the police did not identify or rectify the mistake themselves, despite the opportunity to do so, and instead had to admit mistakes publicly only when contradictory information was ascertained and published by the media," he said.

"This resulted in a consequent negative effect on the credibility of police."

Labour police spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said Tolley was right to apologise, but wrong to say the problem wasn't systemic.

"Unlike the minister I wouldn't agree with her statement there weren't systemic issues at play here and in fact, IPCA have made it very clear there was a systemic breakdown in communication," she said.

"There's no excuse for what happened, but when you cut $40 million out of a police budget, mistakes start happening."

In a statement today police responded to the report by saying it had been a "learning situation for all staff involved".

Public relations expert Carrick Graham said the excuse of time pressures and other commitments was an "old political line", and at some stage people needed to see some accountability.

"The buck has to stop somewhere," he said.

AUT public relations senior lecturer Averill Gordon said time pressures and other commitments were no longer a valid excuse for communications mistakes or for providing inaccurate information to the media or the public, adding there was growing pressure on organisations to have transparent communications.