Top recognition for brave officer

WARREN GAMBLE
Last updated 13:00 02/12/2013

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Stepping past a shot police colleague to confront a gunman, Constable Mike Wardle was acting on instinct.

"There is a man coming down the hall towards us with a gun. He's shooting. You have got to try to stop him."

Mr Wardle's matter-of-fact explanation belies his courageous actions that have been recognised with one of the country's top bravery awards.

Now a sergeant based in Nelson, he has been awarded the New Zealand Bravery decoration for an act of exceptional bravery in the confrontation with the gunman at a Christchurch flat in July 2010.

A routine inquiry at a Buccleugh St, Phillipstown, unit quickly turned into a life-and-death situation when Christopher Graham Smith shot two officers and fatally wounded police dog Gage.

Mr Wardle was in the hallway as he and three other officers planned to negotiate with Smith - who was holed up in a bedroom - after they discovered a cannabis growing room in the house.

Instead, Smith came out firing, hitting Senior Constable Bruce Lamb in the face, and shooting Gage when he jumped over his prone handler as the gunman readied to fire again.

Mr Wardle, who was armed only with a Taser, stepped around Mr Lamb as he crawled up the hallway, and fired at Smith. But the Taser either missed or was ineffective.

The gunman kept shooting, hitting Constable Mitch Alatalo in the leg as he escaped through a bathroom window.

"I remember thinking if he comes down here I'm dead," Mr Wardle said.

But his training kicked in and he reloaded the Taser, even as Smith turned the rifle on him.

His actions allowed Constable Marty Stiles time to drag Mr Lamb by his belt down the hallway.

What Mr Wardle did not know at the time - he found out about a week later after watching the Taser footage - was that Smith had tried to fire at him, but the rifle had jammed.

Smith then retreated to his bedroom. Armed police later arrested him, and he is serving a 14-year jail sentence.

Mr Wardle, who was also part of the mammoth police effort in the wake of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, said he could still vividly recall the Phillipstown incident, almost like a series of movie clips, but he did not dwell on it.

The part he did struggle with was the knowledge that, as a trained negotiator, he had originally planned to be the one approaching Smith's door. But the "headstrong" Gage had brushed past him in the hallway, and "I wasn't going to argue with him".

Mr Lamb was also a highly experienced officer who could handle the negotiation.

"That was something a little hard to deal with," Mr Wardle said. "How do you say thank you for that."

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He kept in touch with Mr Alatalo and Mr Lamb, who has required several operations to repair his shattered face but remains in the force as a drug dog handler.

Mr Wardle said he was proud and honoured to receive the award, "for doing effectively what I consider is just doing my job".

"Any of the guys I have worked with or work with at the moment, I feel confident in my position would have done the same."

He moved to Nelson with his wife Donna and three young children in April last year to advance his career, and said he was loving the lifestyle here.

Tasman police district commander Superintendent Richard Chambers said Mr Wardle had put his own life on the line to help save his colleagues, even as he had a gun pointed at him.

The award was a fitting recognition of an extraordinary act of bravery. It also reflected the dangers frontline police faced.

Although police were trained to deal with violent situations, Mr Wardle's decision-making and ability to think of other's safety was remarkable, Mr Chambers said.

- Nelson

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