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Inquest into death of Shargin Stephens to begin in Rotorua

Shargin Stephens, a 35-year-old Māori man, was fatally shot by police after smashing up an empty police car with a slasher in Rotorua in 2016. Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

More than seven years after he was shot by police, the whānau of Shargin Stephens will finally have their time in court, with an inquest into his death beginning in Rotorua today.

Stephens, a 35-year-old Māori man, was fatally shot by police after smashing up an empty police car with a slasher in Rotorua in 2016.

He was on electronically monitored bail at the time so police knew where he was, but they still bail-checked him 70 times in the 38 days leading up to the shooting, including visits at 1:45am, 2:15am and 3:49am.

The original Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) report, published in 2017, said the police bail checks were “reasonable” and did not play a role in Stephens lashing out that day.

But in 2021, RNZ revealed that multiple aspects of the IPCA report were contradicted by the police homicide investigation into the shooting, and the IPCA then reopened its file.

The revised IPCA report, published in 2022, said the bail checks were excessive and may have played a role in the shooting.

“Given Mr Stephens was being electronically monitored, this frequency of bail checking was excessive and unreasonable,” the report said.

“The unreasonable and oppressive frequency of bail checking may have contributed to Mr Stephens’ views of police and the actions he took on 14 July 2016.”

The IPCA report also called for the police to review its entire bail system.

The bail review was released this year and one of its 15 recommendations relates to offenders, like Stephens, who are subject to multiple bail checks.

Police will change their policies to ensure that offenders who have been bail-checked more than three times in the previous 12 hours will be automatically flagged by the police IT system.

Further checks would have to be approved by a supervisor and police would then opt for education, support and warnings with arrest used as a last resort.

The inquest into Stephens’ death will be heard by Coroner Michael Robb, who took over the case from Hamilton Coroner J P Ryan.

After RNZ revealed significant discrepancies in the official story of the police shooting in 2021, Coroner Ryan banned further media reporting on the case.

The coroner issued an interim order prohibiting any evidence presented to the inquiry into Stephens’ death from being published.

Coroner Ryan’s order was wide-ranging and applied to any minutes issued by the coroner, memos filed by lawyers and any evidence or submissions relating to any part of the proceedings.

The coroner said the order was made on the grounds it was in the “interests of justice and personal privacy”.

The year-long gagging order imposed by Coroner Ryan was lifted by a High Court judge in June 2022 following successful legal action by RNZ.

RNZ then published further police documents about the bail checks made on Stephens.

The documents included emails which showed police planned “random and multiple” bail checks on Stephens and egged each other on.

One officer addressed his colleagues as “fellow nightstalker bros” and another signed off with “happy hunting”.

In a June 2015 email, a senior sergeant told his colleagues that Stephens was a suspect in a liquor store burglary.

“Please ensure priority bail checks on Stephens. Consider random and multiple checks on him. Happy hunting.”

Another officer suggested a ninja-style operation to catch Stephens out.

The officer addressed the email to his “fellow nightstalker bros” and said police would be “going hard” until Stephens 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.”

Deputy Police Commissioner Tania Kura told RNZ she did not condone the tone of language used in the emails. “It’s disrespectful and does not reflect our police values.”

The inquest is set down until November 29.