Out to get their man

KATHRYN KING
Last updated 10:30 22/03/2014
armed offenders
Armed offenders squad members

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There's no doubt that armed offenders squad members, clad head to toe in black, cut an imposing figure.

They're the specialists who are called upon when situations get dicey, weapons come out, and threats are made.

But underneath the balaclava, they're general duties police officers, detectives, and community constables who voluntarily put themselves through rigorous training and go the extra mile.

Reporter Kathryn King tagged along on some training to see what it takes to be a member of the team.

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Walking quietly through the bush on an otherwise ordinary sunny day to the deafening chorus of crickets, a trail of black-clad armed offenders squad members snake their way along a leafy pathway.

They're looking for a man who's possibly armed with a knife, who they've been told has taken a trail deep into the bush at Ashhurst Domain.

Following the nose of a police dog, they spread out and walk cautiously down the path, eyes everywhere.

A woman walking her dog has ducked somewhat nervously into the bushes in the face of armed police moving stealthily down the hill, but is reassured and sent back up the path behind them.

The offender has tucked himself deep in the flaxes off the path, but he's spotted by an eagle- eyed squad member before the dog has picked up his scent.

The alert goes up, but screaming profanities and to "get off my land", the man tries to run.

But there's nowhere to go in the dense bush.

The offender, played in a training exercise by a young officer and up and coming dog handler, is nicked.

Made up of detectives, general duties officers, community constables and any rank in between, the Palmerston North armed offenders squad is a highly trained group of volunteers who have taken on the additional responsibility and training that comes with being a member of the specialist squad.

With 16 members split into two teams of eight, the squad is about "medium sized", says AOS team leader Detective Sergeant Tim Moffatt.

This year marks 50 years since the AOS was formed, galvanised into creation a year after four officers were shot in two separate incidents in Lower Hutt and Waitakere within the space of four weeks, alarming authorities and shocking the country.

While entry into the squad used to be a process of shoulder tapping, any officer can show an interest and try their hand at qualifying to make it into a team.

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But before they don their facemasks and goggles, there's a matter of some rigorous testing to get through.

Testing is done at both district and national level, and provided they make it through that, there is a national qualification for officers to sit before they can be deployed.

Testing is both physical and mental, designed to push hopefuls to their limits, place them under pressure and stress, and require them to make critical decisions at the same time.

In the last round of regional testing, held in Palmerston North, 13 officers from around the Central District put their hands up, nine attempted the testing, and only six completed it.

For all aspects of the test, the aim is for a 100 per cent pass rate.

When they do complete the process, squad members are restricted in their living arrangements, required to stay within 15 minutes of Palmerston North station, and take part in monthly training.

They can be anywhere, at any time, when they are called to suit up.

In the 16 years Moffatt has been involved with the AOS, times have changed, he says.

The uniformity of the training and the selection process has increased "exponentially", and is a longer process now, he says.

"It's harder to get in now than it was then."

According to an article in the New Zealand Police Association magazine Police News, in 2012, there were 300 AOS members in 17 squads around the country and six female members nationally.

Two of those women are in the Palmerston North squad, but they don't like to be singled out, despite their relative rarity.

They go through the same selection processes, physical testing and exams as the blokes, and are simply "one of the team".

An AOS squad member must be "someone you can rely on to get the job done", Moffatt says. Stable personalities, good decision- making, tenacity, fitting into a team and being physically fit were all desirable attributes.

"When the pager goes off at 3am, there's never any complaints. They are all 'what's happening, where do we go?', he says.

The primary role of the squad is to "cordon, contain and appeal", and although they train to use an M4 rifle and Glock pistol, they would rather come home with no shots fired, Moffatt says.

If there are injuries, each squad member is trained in AOS first aid, tactical combat casualty care, and two members are trained to pre-hospital emergency care level.

As shift workers anyway, the time of the callout, even if it is the middle of the night after a long shift, doesn't make much of a difference.

Part of the appeal is the challenge, says police officer PNJ (his call sign - individual squad members are not named due to the nature of the job).

"Whenever the pager goes off, you're racing to get to work because you never know what you're going to."

Each year, the squad will go on almost 60 deployments, some preplanned, like high-risk search warrants, but mostly, they're attending emergency jobs, where the cordon, contain and appeal process is put into action.

In 2009, members of the squad travelled to Napier when Jan Molenaar, a former territorial soldier, fired on police in a routine cannabis search, killing Senior Constable Leonard Snee and injuring two other officers and a civilian.

Later that year, they were also involved in the Norsewood manhunt for David Bourke, who killed his brother and drove across the lower North Island with his body in the back of the car.

Back at the Ashhurst Domain, it's lunchtime, an opportunity to peel off at least 20 kilograms of sweaty kit for a quick break before it's back to training again.

Training with the dog is a matter of getting used to using the asset, and requires a different way of working, I'm told.

The squad don't have their own Palmerston North-based AOS dog, instead using a Whanganui dog when the need arises.

They have hopes that today's police dog, Carne, will make the cut when he sits his exam later this year.

After lunch, it's back on with their gear and they're briefed about a suspected gunman on the loose.

This time they'll be tracking him through the bush and across a paddock, following the police dog at a fair clip.

There's no doubt they'll get their man.

"They are all guys you never need to cajole along; in fact, at times, you need to tell them to slow up," Moffatt says.

- Taranaki Daily News

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