50 years in the firing line
The policemen and women in black are an enigma. But on the armed offenders squad's 50th anniversary, it has thrown open its doors to the public and let Talia Shadwell in on the stories beyond the balaclavas.
On the morning of July 7, 1969, armed police were closing in on a Whangarei home where a gunman was holed up with a baby snatched from its mother at knifepoint. He had a .22 calibre rifle and a double-barrelled shotgun.
Founding Auckland armed offenders squad commander Graham Perry arrived and took stock of the scene in Norfolk St. The aim was to negotiate a peaceful surrender, Perry, now 85, recalls.
"Then some relations of the offender approached me and told me, 'What are you doing sitting here? He's going to kill that child.' This changed our tack."
The squad appealed to the man through a loudhailer rigged to a fence. But the gunman told them he was going to kill the six-month- old, and then himself if they didn't bring him the baby's mother, who had gone into hiding.
In Ray Van Beynen's official history of the AOS, Zero-Alpha, squad members detail hearing shots ring out, and fearing it was all over. Fresh wails broke the tension and the gunman emerged, with his helpless hostage unharmed.
"The offender was highly emotional and had a little baby that he held up periodically and said that he was going to shoot," Perry remembers.
So the squad plotted a rescue. Perry sneaked into the house shortly before dusk, tailed by Senior Sergeant Mick Huggard. "I moved slowly up the passageway, the offender heard me and spun round and fired a shot," Perry said.
"I was in a crouched position with a pistol and the bullet went over my head. Had I been in an erect position, I don't know where it would have gone."
Huggard recounted the gunman's taunts in Zero-Alpha: "One of the bastards came in the front door but I shot him. Send in some more and I'll shoot them, too."
Perry said: "On that note, we decided we'd vacate the premises."
They tried negotiating again, but instead fielded pot-shots. Perry recalls the gunman getting cocky.
"He was challenging us to put our best six men out, he'd have a go with them. 'I'll get four of them before they get me,' and all this type of stuff."
At dusk, Perry - fearing for the baby - made a critical decision.
"I decided to see if we could clip him on the shoulder with the rifle."
Perry picked up a .303 calibre rifle and waited. The gunman appeared at the window and spotlights flooded the scene. They simultaneously let rip.
"I took aim at the shoulder whilst he was firing and the bullet hit the butt of the rifle," he said. "I'd have got 9 out of 10 for the shot."
His opponent threw his gun aside and hollered: "You've got a bloody good shot out there."
It was the first shot the squad had fired in the five years since its creation. "I knew there'd be all sorts of consequences."
The gunman reappeared at the window without his weapon, grasping his stomach claiming he'd been hit. Perry did not know if he was feigning injury.
"We decided we were going to have to do something, so we went back into the house."
Perry, with Huggard and Constable Popa Netana on his heels, burst in on the gunman.
"He heard us coming. He spun round with the shotgun.
"As I advanced on him, he shoved it forward. It went into my throat."
Perry grappled with the man, pushing him back against a couch as twin barrels crushed his throat.
"His hand was fumbling, trying to get the trigger. A feeling of tranquillity swept over me. I felt, 'Well, this is the end - and at least I won't have to file for a police inquiry for firing the shot'."
Just as Perry pushed the gun away, Huggard dived at the struggling pair, and wrenched the shotgun from the man's grasp.
Illuminated by spotlights, the trio collapsed in a heap, narrowly missing the baby on the couch.
Netana grabbed the gunman while Huggard walked out of the house, babe in arms, to the neighbourhood's applause.
"It was very touching, poignant," Perry recalls.
In his official report, published in Zero-Alpha, Perry concedes going into the house to wrestle with the gunman was "extremely unorthodox". But he felt sure the baby would have been killed, and was willing to put himself at risk in his reluctance to shoot the captor dead. In the end, the gunman and the baby were unhurt.
Years later, Perry owns up to the squad's spot of mischief before they hit the road back to Auckland. "One of our intrepid members stole the district commander's bottle of whisky and drank it on the way. We felt very relieved."
Perry was awarded the George Cross for bravery, while Huggard and Netana, who have both since died, were also given awards.
Perry later rose to the level of deputy assistant commissioner, and says he was "secretly very pleased" when two of his three sons, Simon and Nick, followed him into the AOS.
CORDON, CONTAIN, APPEAL
When an armed offender started making demands - whether for a helicopter or a million dollars - Wellington district operations support manager and former AOS attache negotiator Inspector Simon Perry knew he had a chance.
"Straight away you know that this person wants to deal.
"You get rapport, you get trust, you get confidence, you get behavioural change. So you work through those processes to get them to give them up."
Cordon, contain, appeal - the AOS mission is to resolve a crisis without anyone firing a shot.
Simon Perry's brother Nick, who retired as assistant commissioner after 42 years in the ranks, joined the AOS in 1978. In 1997, hostage-taker Peter John Firman demanded the presence of both brothers as part of his negotiations.
"A disaffected ex-military guy at Woodbourne air base took a staffer there, taped a shotgun around his neck and put explosives around the place."
Firman rang Nick Perry trying to get hold of Simon - wanting a chopper brought to the airbase near Blenheim.
Nick Perry asked to speak to the hostage, wanting to know if he was indeed being held at gunpoint. "It was the deepest, most heartfelt 'yes' I've heard in my whole life.
"I got on to Simon and said, 'For chrissake's - get in there.' "
Simon Perry said: "I got in there and you can read the situation, I got a bit of a feel for the guy.
"His comment to me was, 'You know, [the hostage] is breathing pretty heavily', and I said, 'You know, if you took that shotgun away from his neck, it might help'. "
After a four- hour standoff, the hostage was released and Firman was eventually jailed.
Usually, surrender is negotiated by phone - the loudhailer is not a subtle means of communication. One officer learned that the hard way, Nick Perry recalls.
" 'Ricky, Ricky - come out, come out,' he said. 'Things are bad enough as they are at the moment but you're already up to your shit in eyeballs.' There were a lot of bushes shaking around the place with cops laughing."
Senior Sergeant Penny Gifford was an AOS member for six years - only the second woman in the Wellington squad.
Empathy, not firepower, is the key to encouraging people to give themselves up, she says. "You get the odd person . . . they'll come out of the house and still be brave and strutting down the driveway.
"But actually you can imagine what's going on in their brain: 'OK, I've got to save face here because I've just made the massive scene, made all these bad decisions - so I'm going to be a little bit brave while I walk down the driveway, but actually I'm going to do exactly what they say.' You give them that moment."
Current Wellington AOS squad and dog section head Senior Sergeant Mark Davidson has been in the squad for 30 years. He has attended stakeouts at all hours.
In the past eight years, the Wellington squad has not been shot at once, and according to police statistics the last time it fired a shot was 2010.
"Very rarely will you be involved in gassing a place; very rarely will you be involved in a shootout," Davidson says. "The people doing this job are meant to be used in a way that's justified and reasonable.
"It doesn't support cowboys."
Negotiating using social media will be the next frontier for the AOS.
Mentally unwell people threatening to harm themselves or others comprise a huge proportion of callouts, Simon Perry says. "People are communicating on Facebook and Twitter, and they are talking as they commit offences."
Police negotiators trying to pull distressed people back from the brink are now also aware people are communicating to the outside using social media, or watching themselves on the news.
"With iPhones . . . you can take that shot of that police officer or that house and you can broadcast it virtually straight away and that advantage then goes back into the subjects and they can see what we've got.
"We have to adapt just like society adapts."
The Dominion Post