Police actions during the weeks-long occupation of parliament in early 2022 were justified, an independent report has found, but multiple failings were identified in planning and preparation.
What you need to know
- The Independent Police Conduct Authority has released its report into police actions during the three-week-long occupation of parliament by anti-government protesters in 2022.
- More than 1,900 complaints were made, the majority by people not present at the protest. Nineteen complaints are being investigated individually.
- Overall, “police served the public of New Zealand well in dealing with this difficult and complex set of events”, said the report.
- But there were failings in planning leading up to the occupation, preparation before the first attempt to break up the occupation on February 10, and communication during it. The decision to abandon this operation should have been made earlier.
- The final operation to end the occupation on March 2 was “conducted professionally and successfully”, but the report criticised the use of police recruits and new graduates and the lack of hard body armour available.
- Arrest processes and evidence recording was deficient, leading to many charges against protesters being withdrawn.
- A number of laws were deemed insufficient for such a mass public disorder event and the authority is recommending a multi-agency review, as well as the urgent purchase of more body armour and better planning procedures.
The Independent Police Complaints Authority has released its report into the police response to the parliament occupation of February-March 2022, finding that overall, “police served the public of New Zealand well in dealing with this difficult and complex set of events”.
But multiple failings were identified with the operation to clear parliament and the surrounding streets on March 2, including poor planning resulting in still-to-graduate recruits from police college being used, a lack of hard body armour, and inadequate arrest processes and evidence collection resulting in many charges against protesters being withdrawn.
The occupation began on February 8, when convoys of protesters opposed to Covid-19 vaccine mandates descended on parliament in central Wellington, and continued for three weeks until a police operation resulted in riots on March 2.
The report found that intelligence provided to police in advance of the protest was good, but in response police “did not sufficiently consider the particular risks posed by this event, especially in the light of disruption reported from similar recent convoys in Australia and Canada”. They should have consulted council about traffic management plans and prepared a detailed operation plan, although this would not necessarily resulted in any additional action, said the report.
First attempt to break up protest
The first attempt to remove protesters came on February 10, when 108 arrests were made but the operation was later abandoned. The report was particularly critical of the response on this day, saying police were unprepared and communication with staff was lacking. Protesters were not given enough notice to leave the grounds under the Trespass Act. “The degree of force used to effect the arrests was generally reasonable, but the arrest process and recording of evidence was deficient,” said the report. “Many charges against protesters were later withdrawn for this reason.”
The report also said police were unprepared to physically deal with so many arrests and people in custody, “which meant they were unable to comply with all legal and policy requirements governing the treatment of detainees in custody”.
It also said the decision to end the operation should have been made earlier in the day when it was apparent that it would not achieve its objective.
Containing the protest
Police efforts to contain the protest in the following weeks was largely reasonable, the report found, but “the demands of day-to-day policing and staff shortages from Covid-19 made it difficult for Wellington District Police to do the necessary planning”.
“During this time police were working on developing a strategy for removing protesters’ vehicles that were blocking the streets around parliament and restoring traffic flow. They did not have the capacity to do this on their own, and their attempts to obtain support from tow operators were largely unsuccessful. They managed to tow only a few vehicles over this period as a result.”
In the final operation to end the occupation on March 2, “substantial and sustained violence was directed at police”, said the report. “This included throwing a Molotov cocktail, bricks, paving stones, fireworks, poles, bottles, a knife and other projectiles. By late in the day the protest had degenerated into a riot. At about 6pm a car was used to attack a police line on Lambton Quay.”
The report said that while there were “some isolated incidents of potentially excessive reactive force by police, they generally acted professionally and with remarkable restraint”.
In the face of this “extreme provocation”, the authority found all the tactics police used to defend both themselves and others on March 2 were justified in the circumstances. “These included skirmish lines, shields, pushing and striking, pepper spray, batons, weapons of opportunity (fire extinguishers, fire hoses and paving bricks), sponge rounds and deflating vehicle tyres. Police were also justified in carrying firearms (though none were used on the day).”
While the police operation was “conducted professionally and successfully”, multiple deficiencies were found:
- Police should have had access to protective equipment when violence escalated, but they didn’t, meaning “a number of officers were exposed to unnecessary risk when objects were thrown at them”. There was insufficient hard body armour available.
- Newly graduated officers used to boost numbers had not been adequately prepared or equipped, and recruits who had not yet graduated were used to help secure the ground police had reclaimed. The need for this arose because of inadequate prior planning.
- Although police had identified problems with their mass arrest process on February 10 and tried to address them, issues with evidence collection remained and resulted in the withdrawal of some charges laid in respect of protester actions on March 2.
Ineffectiveness of laws and recommendations
The authority identified “a number of areas where the current law is not fit-for-purpose for the mass public disorder situation that confronted police on 10 February and on 2 March”, including the law of trespass, the law governing how arrests may be lawfully effected; and the law governing how property left behind by trespassers should be handled.
It has proposed a multi-agency review of these laws, as well as the urgent purchase of more body armour and better operating procedures for public order events.
Police received 1,905 complaints relating to the protest, over 85% from people who were not physically present. The “vast majority” of complaints are addressed in the report, with 19 complaints being investigated individually, said the authority. The outcomes of these will be reported to each complainant and a summary will be released publicly.