It is now six years since the police tormented Rotorua man Shargin Stephens day and night for more than a month with incessant and utterly unjustified ‘bail checks,’ and then, when he finally snapped and lashed out, shot him dead. Not one of the police officers who joined in that vile and cowardly act has been charged with any crime, nor even disciplined – on the contrary, they have all been protected by a concerted police-led and court-sanctioned coverup. To this day they remain shielded by the cloak of anonymity.
They should be named and prosecuted for murder.
If ever there was a case that demonstrates the way name suppression and court-ordered bans on media coverage obstruct justice, this case is it.
The cover-up would have been complete, but for a dogged investigation by RNZ reporter Guyon Espiner, which lifted the lid on the contradictions in the original cover-up by the so-called Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA). The facts reported by Espiner, drawn from police text messages among themselves as the provocations escalated, constitute prima facie evidence that this was an organised campaign of stalking and harassment culminating in murder, resembling in some ways a Klan-style lynching.
In 2015 Shargin Stephens was convicted on burglary and drug charges and sentenced to home detention. A probation officer reported that “Shargin’s compliance has been outstanding throughout his sentence and he has shown a huge motivation to complete his sentence successfully.” By April 2016 he had completed a course in orchard management, and some time later he was granted a change to his conditions of home detention so that he could work full time at an orchard in Maketu.
In the meantime, in early May 2016 police had raided his home and charged him with drug and firearms offences. He was granted bail pending the court hearing on these charges.
There followed more than a month of punitive ‘bail checks.’ Police called at his home, up to four times a day, at all hours of the day and night. There was absolutely no reason or justification for these ‘checks.’ Police often carry out bail checks to make sure that the person is complying with the conditions of bail (usually, the condition that they reside at a particular address). But Stephens was on Electronically Monitored Bail, and wore an electronic ankle bracelet, and the police would have been alerted instantly if he had left the house – so a check for this purpose was clearly unnecessary. It was then claimed that they were checking for compliance with a condition not to drink alcohol. But the record shows that out of 70 checks carried out over a period of 38 days, he was only alcohol tested 21 times. He passed every one of those tests, so clearly there was also no reason to suspect his non-compliance here either. Of the 70 checks, 18 were between 11pm and 6am.
The real motivation for the punitive ‘checks’ was revealed in the text messages circulated among the police themselves. A senior sergeant emailed his colleagues with his suspicions that Stephens was involved in a burglary. “Please ensure priority bail checks on Stephens. Consider random and multiple checks on him. Happy hunting.” [my emphasis – JR] In March 2016 Rotorua Police had compiled “an anecdotal list” of the city’s “top ten offenders” and Stephens’ name was on it. “I am struggling for unlawful takers as most of the prolific ones are in custody. Nominations please!” emailed a police intelligence officer.
Another officer, in an email addressed to his “fellow nightstalker bros,” urged “going hard” against Stephens until he was sentenced. “Get the guys to do a bail check on Stephens at [his home address] straight away – see if he can be breached, or even look at staying ninja styles close to his home from 0100 onwards and see if he is picked up or walks out.”
Stephens cooperated fully and uncomplainingly with these vexatious checks for 38 days. “There was nothing to report about the defendant’s behaviour. I never experienced any animosity from him at any of the checks. I did not breath test the defendant at any of my six checks,” one police sergeant said in a sworn statement. Even the constable who bail-checked him at 3.49am reports Stephens was cooperative. “When he came out, he waved out. I told him to come to the gate as I needed to do a breath test on him. This showed a result of no alcohol. There was nothing of note in terms of his demeanour, tired if anything.”
But after a while the ceaseless torment started to wear him down. “I could see he was getting frustrated at all the police checks,” his partner Estelle later told police. “He had his home-D bracelet on and he thought that would be enough but the police kept checking. We would get checked day and night. It is hard to see the sense in that when he has his bracelet on. It seemed like it was a thing that any police gang going past Vaughan Road had to stop in.”
Two days before he was shot, Stephens received permission from Corrections to leave the house during the day to work in the orchard. Despite the fact that police were fully aware of this arrangement, he was stopped and threatened with arrest as he left the house on the morning of his first day of work. His friend and workmate Shaun reported that “Stephens was livid and cursed police on the drive to the orchard saying ‘Why won’t they leave me alone?’”
At 2am the next day Shaun received a text message from Stephens. “The text read ‘f*** this brother they won’t let me sleep f***’. I text back: ‘all good my bro see you in the morning, got mahi tomorrow. We just cruise. See you in the morning’.”
Work the next day was delayed due to bad weather. When Shaun went to pick up Stephens for work at 1pm, he had already been shot. A short time earlier he had attacked an empty police car in the street near his home with a weed slasher, smashing two side windows and cracking the windscreen. The cop who had left the car (and who had not been attacked or threatened by Stephens) got back in, drove it away, and called “10-10” on the police radio for immediate assistance – the highest level of emergency call. At least 13 police in multiple cars converged on the scene and began to chase Stephens down the street and into a mechanic’s workshop. Attempts to subdue him with a Taser failed because he was wearing a puffer jacket.
Eventually six police closed in on Stephens in a semicircle. One of these, identified only as L05, had a bushmaster M4 rifle aimed at his chest. L05 said Stephens “started to move purposefully towards him” – and shot him twice. “I felt he was gonna kill me,” he said. According to many witnesses, including other police at the scene, Stephens was holding the weed slasher at head height, circling it round in front of himself, but was not advancing or threatening anyone at the time he was shot. Several witnesses later told police it was like Stephens “had a taiaha in his hand” that day and rather than threatening anyone, he looked like he was doing a haka to keep the police at bay.
He died twelve days later.
The cover-up machine then sprang into action. The IPCA investigated and issued its report a year later, declaring that the police were justified in shooting Stephens on grounds of self-defence and public safety. On the bail checks, the report notes that “On the face of it, the frequency of the bail checks on Mr Stephens do appear to be problematic. However, in the context of the suspicions raised by Mr Stephens’ uncooperative behaviour and restless demeanour … it was reasonable for police to check Mr Stephens as often as they did.” “Many workers and bystanders were exposed to the threat posed by Mr Stephens, who behaved irrationally and with extreme aggression,” said the IPCA chair, Judge Sir David Carruthers.
This ‘uncooperative behaviour and restless demeanour’ was pure invention – the sworn statements by the police who did the bail checks say the exact opposite. Likewise, the IPCA slander about Stephens behaving ‘irrationally and with extreme aggression’ on the day of the shooting – he had vented his anger on the cop car, rather than the cop who got out of it, and ignored the many bystanders in the vicinity.
The coroner then used this ruling to deny the Stephens whanau’s request for a full coronial inquest into the death, arguing that since the IPCA had already established the facts of the incident, only a narrow inquest was needed.
When RNZ reporter Guyon Espiner’s investigation was published in June 2021, the cover-up started to unravel. Espiner not only revealed the contradictions between what the IPCA had found and the sworn testimony of the police themselves, but also some other issues that were not mentioned at all in the IPCA report, including the highly pertinent fact that the cop who fatally shot Stephens, and at least one other officer present, had been among those carrying out the bail checks on Stephens.
Espiner also reported publicly that Tasers such as those used just before Stephens was shot automatically record video, and when, at the request of the Stephens whanau, these recordings were analysed by digital imaging experts at Wellington based company Security Risk Management (SRM), there were some strange features, which SRM describes as ‘red flags.’ “The video recording from the taser camera operated by Officer L06 appears to have been edited to remove seven seconds immediately prior to the shooting of Mr Stephens,” [the SRM report says.] “The time stamp on the taser footage jumps from 00.55.51 to 00.55.58 – right before Stephens is shot,” it says. The missing footage is “of grave concern, inviting speculation that this evidence has been altered.” There were also other discrepancies: a report by the police weapons expert who examined the Tasers immediately after they were handed in described the video as being 20 second long, while a detective inspector’s job sheet from 15 July, the day the taser was handed in, described the taser footage as 11 seconds long.
“It is standard practice as part of investigations for an edited version of footage to be prepared for evidential purposes,” the police said in explanation of this, adding that before being submitted as evidence the edited version of video footage was reviewed by both the Crown and the defence to agree it was an accurate record of the incident.
The response to the revelations in the Espiner article was not long in coming. Two days later, at the request of the police, Coroner JP Ryan issued a wide-ranging order prohibiting publication of any evidence relating to the inquiry, including any minutes issued by the coroner, memos filed by lawyers and any evidence or submissions relating to any part of proceedings. The coroner said publicly that the order was made “in the interests of justice and personal privacy.” The detailed reasons for the decision were set out in a separate minute – which was itself covered by the prohibition order! At the same time, the IPCA re-opened its ‘inquiry’ into the shooting. Round two of the cover-up had begun.
Nor was the media gagging order the only step towards greater secrecy. The Crown Prosecutor, acting for the police, blamed the Stephens whanau for leaking information to RNZ and – and despite admitting she had no evidence to support this claim, and that “it can only be inferred” – argued that they too should not receive any new evidence from the inquest. The coroner decided this was a step too far, but did require 13 members of the Stephens whanau to sign a confidentiality statement and threatened them with contempt of court proceedings if they violated it. “One or more members of the Stephens whānau cannot be trusted to treat the evidence provided as confidential,” the coroner said. These decisions fell under the gagging order.
The IPCA went into damage-control after the Espiner article appeared, and in March 2022 issued a new report which included an about-face on the question of the bail checks. The constant late-night bail checks on Stephens were excessive and unreasonable, the IPCA now admitted, and may have contributed to him lashing out. In passing, it also admitted that it initially undercounted the number of bail checks the police did on Stephens, revising that number upward from 64 to 70, and admitted that its initial report was wrong to say that none of the 13 officers involved in the shooting knew Stephens. The new report also admitted to inaccuracies about the degree of violence exhibited by Stephens: the original report quotes an officer saying Stephens ‘took a big swing’ at him with his slasher and stated that “Mr Stephens’ actions were captured on the taser camera footage.” Now they admitted that this is not what the taser footage showed at all. There was no ‘big swing’ – Stephens had the slasher out in front of him at head height, circling it around in front of him. The new IPCA report also came up with a new explanation of the missing seven seconds of Taser video recording, claiming this was “most likely due to a common technical fault in the apparatus”.
Despite all these admissions of inaccuracy, the IPCA still maintained that the shooting was justified. The media ban remained in place; the cops involved remained under the cloak of anonymity. Would Cover-up Round Two succeed?
RNZ initiated legal action challenging the media ban. Days before it was due to come to court in June 2022, the police dropped their opposition to the proceedings, and the ban was lifted. We learned most of the information in this article through the success of that challenge. We also learned that the police had attempted to get the Espiner report itself taken down from the RNZ website. Once again, the coroner thought that was beyond his powers, but he attempted nonetheless to persuade the Ministry of Justice to “discuss” the situation with RNZ, and expressed his view that “publication of evidence during an open inquiry in principle may be a breach of common law.” One must wonder what this coroner understands by the term ‘open inquiry.’
This case, the continuing name suppression granted to the police officers at the centre of it, and the strenuous efforts by the police, supported by the coroner, to suppress public discussion of it, raise several important points of law and democratic rights.
The revised IPCA report, in admitting that the bail checks were oppressive while holding firm to its ruling that the shooting was justified, attempts to separate the shooting itself from the harassment, provocation and torment Stephens had endured in the month prior. “The fact that unreasonable Police prior actions probably contributed to events does not justify Mr Stephens’ specific actions at the time,” Authority Chair, Judge Colin Doherty said. This is a continuation of the efforts by police, from the first moments of the cover-up, to portray Stephens as simply crazed by amphetamines and lashing out randomly.
The shooting cannot be separated from the month of torment. Nothing expresses the lynch-mob character of the situation better than the police emails to the ‘fellow nightstalker bros” talking about ‘Happy hunting.’ Provoking this man beyond human endurance, preventing him from sleeping, lurking in the dark ‘ninja-styles’ waiting for him to put a foot wrong, constantly needling him and hounding him until he lashed out, thereby supplying them with the pretext for more charges, or a beating, or, as it turned out, a shooting – this was all just a bit of fun for these cops. They did it simply because they could do it with impunity. This is the issue at the heart of the dispute between the Stephens whanau and the coroner over the scope of the inquiry. The Stephens whanau’s demand for a full open coronial inquiry must be supported.
The second issue raised by the oppressive ‘bail checks’ is the question of bail itself. Electronically Monitored Bail (EMB) has been treated by the Police and Corrections, in this instance and in general, as a form of home detention, where the person is under constant and direct supervision even though they stay in their own home. That is not what bail is. Nor is it a cost-saving measure to save the state the cost of keeping prisoners remanded in custody – as it is often presented.
Bail is a right of persons accused of crimes. It is a recognition of the right of the presumption of innocence: The person granted bail has been accused of a crime, but since no accusation against them has yet been proved, there is therefore no legal basis to keep them in detention. In order to justify denying bail the prosecution has to satisfy the court that the accused person presents a real and immediate threat to public safety, or to the safety of a particular individual, or is likely to abscond. Clearly this was not the case in this instance, because Stephens was granted bail. Bail is the right to be left alone until such time as the charges are proved – in the United States this right is protected in the Constitution. The increasing use of EMB in New Zealand tends to erase the distinction between bail remand in custody; this is being used to undermine the right to bail.
The third important issue concerns the name suppression for the police involved. An earlier coroner who presided over the case issued an order in May 2019 suppressing the names of all the police officers involved. This is routine practice in New Zealand. Much is made of the need to keep the identities of the police officers secret in cases like this.
This then became the rationale for the wider media gagging order, which was justified by the Crown Solicitor on the grounds that RNZ’s reporting of the “employment and work histories” of two officers meant “a limited class of people could piece together” their identities. The coroner also argued that “publication of any evidence is likely to have a seriously deleterious effect on the mental health state of the police officers involved.”
“No officer ever wants to shoot someone, this is the last outcome anyone wanted,” added Bay of Plenty District Commander Superintendent Andy McGregor in discussing the revised IPCA report.
Well, not quite ‘anyone.’ When one of the dog handlers present during the shooting of Shargin Stephens, Officer L12, was asked why he didn’t attempt to get the dog to disarm Stephens of the weed slasher, his response was “I’m not prepared to lose the dog over this. The last thing I wanted was a dead dog.” Apparently, for this officer at least, a dead human being was preferable to a dead dog.
But even if we accept that the police officers concerned did not set out to kill Stephens on that day – and that the situation for the one that pulled the trigger was extremely stressful and upsetting – the fact remains that some kind of special rule seems to apply to police officers when the question of culpability arises for actions taken as part of their occupation.
Compare this, for example, with bus driver Junwei Zhang, who was at the wheel of a bus that rolled, killing five people, near Rotorua in September 2019. It could truthfully be said that no bus driver wants to kill their passengers, and that this was the last thing Junwei Zhang wanted, and that being publicly identified as the driver in this incident could have a seriously deleterious effect on his mental health state. Yet none of those things prevented this driver being identified, charged, and held responsible for his conduct on the job – and rightly so. Similarly for the driver of the car in which five teenagers were killed near Timaru recently – despite the fact that public anger against this individual was so intense that direct threats to his safety were yelled from the public gallery in the courtroom.
Why then do police officers enjoy this almost automatic immunity from being identified, even in cases like this, where there are serious questions raised about their conduct? The inescapable conclusion is that the police themselves, and the court system, consider the police to be above the law.
The police officer given the unenviable job of explaining away the “Happy hunting” emails, Deputy Police Commissioner Tania Kura, said that she did not condone the tone of language used in the emails. She said the emails were from six years ago and police had put a lot of work into achieving a “fundamental change in culture” over that time.
Just how little change has actually been achieved is indicated by the updated IPCA report, which noted in March of this year that “Crucially there was (and still is) [my emphasis – JR] no oversight or supervision of the frequency or reasonableness of bail checking.”
One thing that might be more effective in putting an end to ‘happy hunting’ and ‘nightstalking’ and other forms of harassment by the police, would be to strip these police officers of their anonymity and their immunity from prosecution, and hold them accountable under the law for their actions – just the same as is done with irresponsible teenagers, careless bus drivers, and anyone else whose actions lead directly to the death of a human being. The contradictions and gaping holes in the IPCA’s two reports also prove beyond all doubt that this body is incapable of investigating the situation without its bias in favour of the police obstructing justice. It is time to open all the files on this case to public scrutiny!
Let a jury decide where the responsibility for the death of Shargin Stephens lies. Not only should the cop who pulled the trigger be facing murder charges, but everyone that took part in the tormenting of Shargin Stephens over the preceding month should be named and charged as accessories to murder.