50 years behind the mask

NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 05:00 07/01/2014
NEIL RATLEY/Fairfax NZ

Southland Armed Offenders Squad - its history, its people and its role.

AOS
GOT 'IM: Southland armed offenders squad members subdue an ‘‘armed offender’’ during a training exercise.

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They are immediately recognisable - dressed head to toe in black, carrying a heavy-duty arsenal of weapons, but what makes the individuals hidden behind the balaclavas want to get in the line of fire?

The door suddenly swings open. The muzzle of a high-powered rifle appears into the room. The person holding the rifle quickly follows, a figure dressed head to toe in black. More black-clad masked-figures flow into the small square room littered with smashed glass in a well-drilled and precise formation. The call goes up: "clear".

In an empty building in the centre of Invercargill, the Southland armed offenders squad is training.

Under the guidance of squad commander Sergeant John "AJ" Harris and 20-year squad veteran Sergeant Wing-wah Ng the squad members go through their drills.

"It's about working as a team, having good communication and control," Mr Ng says. "Those are the skills that will keep everyone alive."

Mr Harris stays in the background keeping an eye on each completed scenario set up for the squad.

Once the drill is completed he steps in and makes a few observations to the masked men gathered around him - no women have served in the Southland squad to date.

There is a calm and reassuring tone to the commander's voice. Much like the way he wants his squad to operate under unpredictable and at times extreme situations. With 30 years of experience under his belt as an squad member, Mr Harris is more than qualified to lead the regular training that will allow his team to cordon, contain and appeal potentially volatile situations involving armed offenders.

He was drawn to the squad after serving as a frontline officer and on police search and rescue for nearly 10 years.

"Being part of a team that is more like a second family makes the AOS a special group to be part of," Mr Harris says. "Everyone has to be on the same page and work together or someone will get hurt or worse."

However, it was an incident that left him staring down the barrels of two guns while on the beat in the small southern fishing town of Bluff that also helped convince him he wanted to be part of the squad.

"I was working alone when a man stole two guns off a fishing boat. I saw him walking up the street and went to speak to him. He pointed the guns at me and told me 'get back in my police car'. You tend to do what you are told when you have a couple of guns pointed at you. I suppose that feeling of being defenceless like that was also a catalyst that led me to be part of a squad whose job it is to deal with a situation like that."

Just over 50 years ago, four other unarmed New Zealand police officers were not so lucky and were gunned down by armed offenders in two separate incidents in 1963. The deaths of the four officers in the space of four weeks shocked the country and alarmed police authorities.

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It was determined there was a need for a specialised police squad to deal with armed offenders. In August 1964, the first squad members went on a two-week training course at Papakura Military Camp.

Back in a vandalised room on the top floor of the empty city-centre building a young officer who has his sights set on joining the squad, but for now has to play the bad guy, is ordered to drop his weapon and drop to the ground. He is soon disarmed and restrained. While the majority of armed offenders squad callouts in Southland have ended in similar fashion, the specialised squad has unfortunately had to use deadly force to contain dangerous situations during its history.

The Southland squad was called into action at the small seaside town of Aramoana on November 13, 1990, when David Gray, a 33-year-old unemployed man, began indiscriminately shooting people in the township with a scoped semi-automatic rifle. By the time he was shot some 34 hours later, 13 people had been murdered.

In 1995 Eric Gellatly took over a sports shop in Invercargill and began firing indiscriminately. Gellatly was fatally shot by a member of the AOS.

During the years, the squad has been deployed to deal with a hostage situation in Tuatapere involving firearms, subdued a man armed with a shotgun, who fired on the squad, on Lidell St and swooped on an Invercargill motel understood to be Southland's first P lab. They have also stormed gang headquarters and attended callouts in the city and in rural areas where domestic violence incidents turn into serious matters with the offender having access to firearms or other weapons, Mr Harris says.

Since 2006, the Southland squad has answered about 220 callouts without having to fire on someone. However, every call-out is treated with the respect a situation involving a deadly weapon deserves, Harris says.

The unpredictable nature of the job was highlighted a few days after Christmas when a report came in a man with a gun was threatening a woman at a rural property. The man was found asleep in a 4WD outside of the house that had been surrounded and evacuated.

"No callout is the same. You are dealing with unpredictable people normally affected by alcohol or drugs or some other issue and the job can be in an urban or rural area," he says.

More than half of the callouts have been emergency responses while the rest are pre-planned involving executing search warrants to assist other spheres of policing where firearms, other weapons or drugs could be involved, Mr Harris says.

Squad members, including the 16 based in Invercargill, are all volunteers. They must qualify at a rigorous national selection and induction course and receive regular additional training in their districts.

They are part-time, drawn from all branches of the police force and operate on a call out basis. The initial training teaches the recruits a lot about themselves. One member describes it as being able to still operate after being "broken mentally and physically". With six hours sleep in three days, toe nails dropping off and blisters; it's about how much you want it, he says.

Anonymous behind his goggles and balaclava, squad member IN09 explains why he wanted to be part of an elite unit in the New Zealand Police Force.

"You're the one who has to sort out the situation when it's serious and potentially deadly," he says.

"I always wanted to be part of the AOS even before I joined the police force. They were the ones I saw dealing with armed situations and those images were an incentive to be part of a team like that.

"You are surrounded by people you trust and put your life in each other's hands."

Member IN12 has been in the squad for two and a half years. "There is always a rush of adrenaline when your pager goes off," he says. "You know you could be walking into a dangerous situation. It's about playing your role in the team to deal with the situation and getting everyone home. You don't want to leave anyone out there."

Like the other squad members, IN12 believes the physical and mental "torture" conquered by each individual before being selected for the AOS and regular training ensures each time the pager goes off everyone in the squad is prepared and on the same wavelength.

The armed offender is down. Two rounds from a Bushmaster M4 rifle have perforated his paper chest. Two more hooded, shotgun-toting offenders are incapacitated when a three-man team breaches a doorway and find their targets. The rounds thud into the sandy bank and dust floats in the air behind the hanging targets as smoking shell casings land on the ground at the firing range.

"An effective (squad) member is one who is physically fit, able to make decisions under fire, operate as part of a unit but also a deadly shot.

Mr Harris reinforces the fact the vast majority of incidents are resolved without the use of force, but each member understands when they are called, they'll be going into a situation where they may be called upon to incapcitate an armed offender - or end up in the sights of a gun themselves.

The squad members are not special, they are just trained to a level a little higher and have access to equipment suited to deal with armed incidents than frontline police, he says. Often, unarmed frontline police officers face just as much risk when fronting up to a routine job such as a domestic dispute that escalates, he reflects.

When the squad gets paged, it is supported by negotiation teams and specially trained police dogs and handlers. St John paramedics also attend all callouts. If "pyrotechnics" are a possibility, the New Zealand Fire Service is also called on for support.

Unlike many of the young men he leads, Mr Harris has been in the line of fire. Sipping on a coffee back at police headquarters he recalls the experience.

"There is a lot of noise over your head as a burst of pellets fills the air."

Those kind of close shaves mean his men can respect his authority and the decisions he makes now that he is a step back from the action at his command post.

"I wouldn't ask anyone to do something I haven't done."

At the end of the day it is Mr Harris' responsibility to get all members of the squad back home to their families while getting the offender to lay down their weapon without blood being spilled.

ABOUT AOS

Armed offenders squads were first established in 1964 after the fatal shooting of four police officers in incidents in Lower Hutt and Waitakere.

The squad provides police with the means of effectively and more safely responding to and resolving situations involving an actual or threatened use of firearms against members of the public or police.

Squad members are volunteers drawn from all police branches – they must qualify at a rigorous national selection and induction course, and receive regular additional training in their districts.

The basic methods of operating are to cordon, contain and appeal to armed offenders.

The squad routinely attends nearly 1000 incidents nationally each year. There are 300 AOS members in 17 squads around the country with six women members nationally.

No squad members have been killed during an AOS operation although AOS Sergeant Stu Guthrie was killed at Aramoana in 1990 before the AOS was deployed.

The 50th anniversary of the formation of the AOS will be celebrated in August with a series of national and local events. Source: New Zealand Police and New Zealand Police Association

- The Southland Times

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