POLICE are flouting privacy laws to save the lives of domestic violence victims.
Officers battling to curb domestic violence in a region described by one murderer as “the most evil valley in New Zealand” are sharing files relating to offenders and victims with agencies that are not party to official agreements allowing information-sharing.
The decision to bend the rules has the support of agencies receiving the potentially life-saving information — and even the privacy commissioner accepts privacy laws should not stop information sharing where safety is at stake.
In a broad approach to curb domestic violence, Wairarapa police identified the 10 most violent families in 2003 and began working with three of them.
The worst family was seen by police for serious violent incidents every 14 days on average — 25 emergency calls in a year. There were a further 49 callouts for crimes committed by children in the family, which police say were linked to seeing their father assault their mother.
Another 40 families are now on the list, though police say that is just the tip of the iceberg as many domestic violence incidents fall below the radar.
Wairarapa’s police chief, Inspector John Johnston, said his staff no longer waited for permission before sharing information with non-governmental anti-violence agencies not covered by memoranda of understanding or agreements covering government agencies.
Investigations by commissioners into child murders, such as those of Masterton half-sisters Saliel Aplin and Olympia Jetson in 2001, blamed a lack of information-sharing for the deaths and continuing cycle of violence.
Mr Johnston said it was better to say sorry later than put a life at risk. “We are prepared to go to a meeting with all the agencies and slap a file on a desk and say, ‘Take out of it what you want," and hell yes, it is making a difference.
“In the past we would not have taken that step. Now we say, ‘You can see the situation clearly, we don’t care if it’s the weekend and a bean-counter has said wait tifi Monday. Just get that kid out now.’”
Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff said that, though police needed to consider the Privacy Act when disclosing personal information, it was a question of trust. “We don’t expect the police or other government agencies to share our information without a good reason for doing so. For example, it may be necessary
to disclose information to avert a threat to someone’s safety.’
She said agencies should still have a clear policy on what they disclosed, to whom, and when.
Women’s Refuge Wairarapa coordinator Lyn Buckley said that, when it was about safety, the rules surrounding privacy had to move. “You can have all the rules about silence that you like but if that child is still at risk what good is that? It is about that child’s safety.”
Mr Johnston said the focus on at-risk families would not stop. “A Mongrel Mob member — a convicted murderer — said to me, ‘This is the most evil valley in New Zealand. It is where you kill your kids.’
“It made me think hard about the area we live in and even more determined to make it a safer place ... for our children especially.”