Police trained for 'ugly situation'

Last updated 05:00 08/05/2009

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It was not the worst-case scenario at least the police knew where the gunman was but it was close.

A heavily armed and obviously unstable man, with a clear propensity for violence, holed up in a house in the middle of an urban street and seemingly backed into a corner.

Police faced huge challenges trying to resolve yesterday's deadly standoff in Napier; unfortunately, they have had plenty of practice in recent years.

Retired police negotiator Dave Haslett, a former member of both the Armed Offenders Squad (AOS) and the highly secretive Special Tactics Group (STG), said one of the few things going for police was that they knew where the gunman was.

Other than that, the many variables made the situation incredibly risky.

"You've got, I'm sure, a whole range of scenarios. It's a pretty ugly situation with huge consequences," Haslett said yesterday, as the drama unfolded.

The incident began about 9.30am when three police officers Constable Len Snee, Community Constable Bruce Miller and Senior Constable Grant Diver arrived at the Chaucer Rd house for a routine cannabis search.

Once shots were fired, police tried to contain the scene and Armed Offenders Squads from Hawke's Bay and Gisborne were alerted by pager and dispatched. The Wellington-based STG flew to Napier by helicopter.

Officers in both groups would have been given their firing orders en route orders detailing the circumstances under which they could shoot.

AOS members there are about 322 volunteer members across 17 units are armed with Glock pistols and Bushmaster M4A3 carbines.

Once on the scene, police would have operated under the "cordon and contain" scenario the modus operandi of the AOS since its inception in 1964 while assessing the threats and risks, and appealing to the gunman.

Haslett said the cordon and contain system was always applied, regardless of risk.

"Those first at the scene have to deal with a lot of variables, including having little information about what they are actually dealing with. First, you attempt to lock up an area with sufficient staff, and it takes time.

"Even though we are dealing with perhaps more extreme violence and a readiness to use firearms a lot more, it's still pretty much the same ball-game. It's just a question of scale."

AOS and STG members would have become involved as soon as they arrived at the Napier Hill scene.

While AOS works under the "cordon and contain" scenario, the STG is trained to resolve incidents. Made up of the best of the best, who regularly train with the army's elite Special Air Service, it is the most secretive police group in the country.

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It was called the anti-terrorist squad until 1991, a year after members of the squad shot and killed David Gray, who killed 13 people at Aramoana in Otago. It has about 40 members.

"Certainly, they are carefully selected, well-trained and they work as a team," Haslett said. "I am confident they could deal with anything that is thrown at them."

Their training is extreme, according to former member Murray Forbes, who led the team that killed Gray. "We were trained by special armed services. There were lessons learned after Aramoana."

Negotiators used loud-hailers to communicate with the gunman yesterday. At one point, witnesses heard police say: "You are surrounded by armed police. Come out. We need to talk to resolve this."

Haslett has been in similar situations.

He said negotiators were highly trained and well aware of the possible consequences of a misstep.

"It is a very, very difficult job and you can't claw back anything that is said.

"There is a strategic approach, but there is also an instinctive approach. They can talk a long time and, ultimately, convince people to do something that they don't want to do."

Haslett said police would move only once they were confident the risk was manageable.

"The reality is it takes as long as it takes. You are putting people at risk if you speed up the process."

- The Dominion Post

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