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Fake Gangs and Illegal Activity: How Far Should Undercover Police Go to Catch A Killer?

We asked an expert whether the controversial "Mr Big" sting used by New Zealand cops should be banned here as it is in other countries.

An elaborate police tactic to elicit confessions from suspects is under fire, despite having been used successfully to convict two high-profile killers last month. The "Mr Big" scheme sees undercover police initiate a target into a fake gang and encourage them to perform illegal activities, from delivering drugs to repossessing cars. Finally, the target is urged to detail past crimes–all to earn the trust of the fictional mob boss, Mr Big.


The lawyer of convicted double murderer Kamal Reddy has alleged the Mr Big operation may fall within the realm of coercion, after it was revealed undercover police used the method in his client's case. Last month another man, Tawera Wichman, was also jailed based on evidence from another Mr Big scheme. In this case the crime was shaking his baby daughter to death in 2009.

To ensure the continued efficacy of Mr Big, police attempted to conceal from the jury the nature of Reddy's arrest, however, the judge ruled in favour of transparency in court. The Mr Big strategy has been banned in many countries including the US, Britain, and Germany as research has proved false confessions play a large part in wrongful convictions.

VICE spoke to New Zealand gang expert, sociologist Jarrod Gilbert to see what police tactics we should tolerate to get the truth.

VICE: So cutting to the chase, how ethical do you think Mr Big is?
Jarrod Gilbert: It's running an incredibly fine line. Look, in this instance they caught a double murderer, so fair play to the police. However it's incredibly important that these things are transparent. False confessions are incredibly tricky. For example, the Innocence Project in the US, cases that are overturned by DNA, I think maybe 25 percent involve false confessions or damning self-testimony… That's huge. It shows the power of confession on the affect of the outcome.


The police actually wanted to keep Mr Big's role in this case under wraps to make sure it can be used in future investigations. How widespread are undercover operations like these?
To say that the means of how evidence was gathered shouldn't be put before the court is incredibly dangerous. That then allows for the possibility that police might overstep the mark. This is not to suggest New Zealand police often do things unethically, but there are examples where that has occurred. A recent undercover operation in Nelson saw police forge court documents in pursuit of getting convictions, which is completely illegal.

Out of curiosity, how did that case turn out?
All charges were thrown out. The crime committed by the police was so serious that the charges couldn't stand. We can't have police breaking the law to enforce the law.

How close then does Mr Big come to coercion?
What we've seen in this particular case, obviously, it's deemed that the offences outweighed the concern with the technique. As long as that's maintained [this strategy] has a place. The question will always be is value of the conviction greater than the concerns around the techniques used. That has to be continually assessed to ensure the police don't go too far. It needs to be very carefully monitored.

How can we monitor it?
There are policies in place in undercover programs that they have to abide by. You can have certain amounts of deception but there are other things you cannot do. We can only discover that when there's full disclosure before the courts as to what's been gathered.

So you condone undercover operations to prove a suspect's guilt? Mr Big operations should be allowed to continue in our society?
Undercover operations an absolutely vital part of policing. That's completely uncontroversial. Where it becomes controversial is how far these measures are taken. That's a line that will always be subjective. Clearly the judge was uncomfortable with the use of the [Mr Big] technique. What this should tell us is that we're travelling very, very close to the line. These kinds of operations should only be used in exceptional circumstances. We must make sure the ends always justify the means.

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