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New South Wales Police Will Pay Out $1.85 Million to Wrongful Arrest Victims

Flawed information in a police database has led to about 100 young people being falsely arrested.

by Julian Morgans
Aug 4 2015, 7:15pm

NSW Highway Patrol pretending to arrest someone for the camera. Image via Flickr user Highway Patrol Images

When the New South Wales Police want information on an individual, they consult a statewide database called the Computer Operational Policing System (also known by its cute acronym: COPS). The problem with COPS, as with any large repository of data, is that it relies on people to enter accurate and up to date information. But unlike say, the system that keeps track of rentals at your video store, incorrect data in a police database can bring on a whole lot of unwarranted arrests.

Since 2008, false data in COPS has led to around 100 individuals being unlawfully detained, and in some cases, strip-searched. This is why on Friday Police lawyers agreed to an in-principal settlement pool of $1.85 million [$1.37 USD], with defendants given until October 9 to register for compensation. This came after nearly five years of legal wrangling by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers on behalf of the wrongfully accused.

Of these defendants, 14 year-old Musa Konneh was arrested three times over a two week period. COPS had him listed as on-bail, when he in fact was not, leading to Musa being strip-searched and detained overnight each time. In the first instance, Fairfax reported that he was arrested for riding on a train without a ticket. As Edward Santow, the CEO of PIAC was quoted as saying, "It certainly has made him fearful of the police, but it has also made it very hard for him to settle into a conventional life—furthering his education, getting a job."

At Friday's hearing, PIAC criticized the Police for moving so slowly when there had been such a well-documented trail of flaws in the way COPS channelled information from the courts, via another network called Justicelink. As Fairfax observed back in 2011, "three months after the local courts started using Justicelink, more than 3600 defects had been identified by the Attorney-General's Department."

On top of forking out for compensation and legal costs, the NSW Police are currently updating COPS at a price tag of $44.8 million [$33 million USD]. Adding to that figure is a lawsuit filed by UK-based Software company, Micro Focus, against the NSW Police for pirating the technology that allowed COPS to run. This case was settled out of court in 2012 for an undisclosed sum, with the police paying another $1.8 million [$1.3 million] in legal costs. In short, COPS has been an expensive program.

Back to the compensation case, it was found that COPS repeatedly failed to update individuals' bail conditions when cases were dropped, or when the provisions of a bail arrangement were altered. So when Musa Konneh was found without a ticket, he'd violated a bail arrangement that was no longer in force. The arresting officers were doing their job, but were unfortunately flying blind.

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VICE Australia/NZ
Computer Operational Policing System
Public Interest Advocacy Centre
Maurice Blackburn Lawyers
Edward Santow
Micro Focus