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Senior police carrying up to six firearms

24 October 2004

Carrying guns in a holster on the hip is still not routine for New Zealand police officers - but don't ask to see what's under their armpits or in their car boots. Rachel Grunwell reports on the police officer's arsenal.

Senior frontline police carry as many as six firearms in the boots of their cars.

While New Zealand police can still claim to be among the few left in the world not openly armed, a Sunday Star-Times investigation has revealed weapons are close at hand in many situations.

A range of squads and officers attending emergencies are likely to be carrying guns - but police are instructed to keep arms strictly away from public view.

Senior officers have weapons locked in the boots of their vehicles in case they need to hand out guns to staff in an emergency. These officers include emergency response police, Crime Investigation Bureau staff, dog handlers and some rural police.

Special squads who are routinely armed include:

- Diplomatic Protection Squad officers - the dark-suited men with ear-pieces who mind the likes of Prime Minister Helen Clark and National Party leader Don Brash.

- Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch airport staff must be armed according to the Civil Aviation Act.

- Members of the Armed Offenders Squad (AOS).

- The elite Special Tactics Group, whose tasks include checking for bombs at VIP conferences.

Last month, the fatal shooting by police of Iraqi refugee Haidar Ebbadi Mahdi, who had stabbed his wife and an officer, highlighted the fact that police have guns at hand.

Police have killed or wounded nine people since 1998, a small number compared with other countries, according to police national manager of operations Superintendent Tony McLeod.

He said New Zealand police were generally unarmed, but it was necessary for a variety of groups to be armed all the time.

He was not sure if the public knew how many police were armed: "We've never claimed to not have access to firearms. It's not kept secret." But police headquarters in Wellington and a spokesman for Helen Clark's office, Mike Munro, refused to say whether diplomatic protection police who guarded Clark were armed.

Police headquarters would say only that diplomatic protection police were armed while on duty.

The Star-Times understands those who guard the likes of the prime minister and Brash are in fact always armed. The number of diplomatic protection staff guarding politicians depends on what they are doing and the level of risk associated with who they are with. But Clark always has at least one officer close by.

A senior Auckland policeman, who did not want to be named, said he and his frontline colleagues regularly wore a gun in a holster when going to violent incidents, but made sure it was hidden under a jersey.

Another said frontline senior officers in Auckland had about two rifles and six Glock pistols locked in the boots of police cars. He said some intelligence staff were also armed while on assignments and "virtually any police officer can draw a firearm if they think the circumstances are justified".

McLeod said New Zealand police had 1771 Glock pistols and 883 bolt-action Remington rifles.

The Glock pistols were appropriate for personal protection and destroying animals, while the rifle was more accurate at hitting targets from a longer range.

According to police general instructions, officers must sign out weapons, noting details such as the time, date and reason for use. The return of a weapon must also be noted, and whether it had been presented must be relayed to the appropriate district manager. If shots were fired, a report must be filed.

The instructions note: "The NZ police is generally an unarmed service. It is recognised, however, that firearms need to be available quickly, easily and safely. Minimum visibility should be applied at all times."

Police could wear guns on hip or shoulder holsters at their own discretion, but should if possible notify a senior officer.

Officers who might be required to be armed were not allowed to drink alcohol within a reasonable time before starting duty.

The Crimes Act allows police to use a firearm in some circumstances, including to defend themselves or others, while arresting threatening offenders, if the arrest cannot be effected in a less violent manner, and while trying to stop someone fleeing from custody.

Any officer could be armed if authorised by a police boss, but no authorisation was required if officers found themselves in an emergency.

McLeod said firearms were not used lightly and police were reluctant to resort to that level of force.

"We should always use the lowest level of force to contain a situation," he said, adding police had other weapons like pepper spray.

Ash Edwards, a former Auckland AOS commander of AOS for 15 years who has left the force, has never pulled the trigger on anyone, but knew several officers who had killed people in the line of duty. These officers knew they had to shoot or other lives would have been at risk.

"But they've had to live with it for the rest of their lives," he said.

Edwards said potential AOS officers were asked in the selection process `if you had to shoot someone could you?'.

Edwards believes the public was not naive. They knew many officers were armed.

Fatal police shootings

August 2004: Haidar Ebbadi Mahdi, 37, an Iraqi immigrant, was shot and killed after he stabbed his wife and a police officer in Auckland.

April 2000: Steven Wallace, 23, was shot and killed in Waitara, Taranaki, after rampaging through the town and advancing on police while armed with a softball bat.

July 1999: Eddie Leo, 31, was shot and killed by police after refusing to put down a fake gun he was pointing at them in Helensville, Auckland.

September 1996: Terrence Thompson, 43, was shot and killed in Hawke's Bay by police after a 65-day manhunt following the shooting of Hastings constable Glenn McGibbon.

September 1996: James Paul Raharuhi, 46, was shot and killed by police in Greenland, Auckland, after firing shots at a service station where his former wife worked.

November 1995: Psychiatric outpatient Barry Radcliffe, 37, was fatally shot by police outside a Whangarei sports shop after firing shots from a gun stolen from the store.

September 1995: Schizophrenic Eric Gellatly, 35, was fatally shot after a 21-hour siege at an Invercagill gun store when he ran out into the street firing shots.

July 1993: Larry Hammond died after being shot three times by police after holding hostage police and members of the public with a loaded crossbow in the Morrinsville police station.

November 1990: David Malcolm Gray was shot and killed by the armed offenders squad after a 24 hour massacre during which he killed 13 people in Aramoana, Otago.

October 1990: Paul Stowers was shot and killed by police in Khyber Pass, Auckland, after he threatened an officer with a shotgun during a routine stop.

Rachel Grunwell
Statistics compiled by Lesley Longstaff

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