Split second decisions: police rules of engagement

11:10, Jan 31 2009

A week after the death of Halatau Naitoko from a bullet fired by an armed offenders squad officer senior reporter Tony Wall finds out when police are permitted to shoot.

What is the AOS?

The squads were set up in 1964, after the fatal shooting of four police officers in Lower Hutt and Waitakere. There are now 17 squads, with 322 volunteer members, responding to 600 incidents a year. They are drawn from all branches and ranks of the police, and operate on a call-out basis by pager.

Members initially go through a one-week selection course followed by a three-week qualifying course. Each member does up to 25 days of follow-up training a year.

The selection process includes practical and written tests on their understanding of the law around firearms use, handling situations and tactical awareness. Once part of a squad, members are retested each year and must pass firearms training.

Since 2005, the AOS has fired shots at offenders only twice, excluding the Halatau Naitoko shooting.



What would the sequence of events have been for the AOS members?

Officers would have received notification by pager, dropped what they were doing, and headed to their nearest squad room to collect their guns and equipment.

They would have been given a quick briefing, possibly including a description of the offender, and been given their "firing orders" circumstances under which they could open fire.

There would have been an overall operation commander, a forward group commander and an AOS commander possibly working from a mobile command post.


What are the firing rules?

Police have their firearms instructions, known as the F061, drummed into them over and over. They are written on the inside cover of police-issue notebooks. Pocket-sized laminated cards with the same information are stored with weapons in gun safes and vehicles. Police can use a firearm in the following circumstances:

* To defend themselves or others if they fear death or grievous bodily harm and they cannot reasonably protect themselves or others in a less violent manner.

* To arrest an offender if they believe the offender poses a threat of death or grievous bodily harm in resisting their arrest and the arrest cannot be reasonably effected in a less violent manner and cannot be delayed without danger to others.

* To prevent the escape of an offender if that person poses a threat of death or grievous bodily harm to others and the offender takes flight to avoid arrest.

An offender is not to be shot until they have first been called on to surrender, unless in circumstances that it is impracticable and unsafe to do so.


What guns do they use?

The gun which killed Naitoko was an American-made Bushmaster M4A3 carbine, which was selected in April 2005 as the New Zealand police primary frontline firearm. The police have 1196 of the semi-automatic rifles, which have a .223 calibre and a magazine capacity of 20 rounds.

New Zealand police say the Bushmaster was identified as the most suitable weapon for frontline use because of its reliability.

The other weapon is the Glock 17 pistol, a 9mm weapon with a magazine capacity of 17 rounds.


What were the officers confronted with on Auckland's western motorway?

Neville Higgison, a member of the AOS for 14 years who was fired at three times in his career, including during the 1990 Aramoana seige, says: "It's the most difficult policing scenario you can ever imagine a mobile armed offender. You can't train for things like that. I would hope [the officers'] adrenalin flow would be stopped by their professionalism as it can interfere with judgement. It's a time for critical judgement.

"Instincts [take over], you're in survival mode, you're totally, totally focused on the danger or perceived danger either in front of you or around you somewhere. The eyeballs are bulging and you are pumping."

Higgison says the officers would have been going over and over the firing instructions in their heads "Am I under threat? Is anyone else under threat?" One of the officers would have yelled for the offender to surrender something like "Put it down, put it down, put it down". Only one officer should have spoken: "If you get three or four guys shouting at an offender there's confusion. An offender with a loaded firearm who is confused it's disaster material."

Murray Forbes, a long-serving AOS member who was in charge of the anti-terrorist squad which gunned down David Gray at Aramona, says the officers had little time to react. "If you're in a city area that is a problem, you've got houses around you. You've got to identify your target, get an angle. If you have time, get someone on the other side to take the shot. But there was no time in this case, as soon as he saw the person something had to be done."

Ultimately, it was up to the individual officers to decide whether to fire.

What went wrong?

Higgison: "I don't want to preempt the inquiry, but I can't help feeling it's a ricochet."

He says a case of mistaken identity is possible, and a clean miss relatively unlikely as the M4 is an accurate weapon. "Either way it's an absolutely tragic accident."

Forbes: "Mistaken identity was what I thought originally whether the description the officer was given was good enough. But I haven't followed it closely enough."

What should happen?

Former Red Squad second-in-command and MP Ross Meurant wants such cases put before the courts, while most serving and former officers spoken to by the Sunday Star-Times believe the officer was carrying out his duty and what happened was an unfortunate accident. The most likely outcome is no criminal action against the officer, unless other reckless behaviour is uncovered.

Higgison believes it is a "stupid idea" for the officer to meet with the victim's family, as it will set a precedent, and says calls by Commissioner Howard Broad for the officer to do so are purely political.

Higgison says his heart goes out to the officer. "On so many occasions it could have been me in that position. It will scar him for the rest of his life." 

Sunday Star Times