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Image: Tina Tiller.
Image: Tina Tiller.

SocietyMay 22, 2024

Lost: one police pistol, last seen high above a Manawatū weed patch

Image: Tina Tiller.
Image: Tina Tiller.

New Zealand police have a lot of guns, and every year one or two are briefly misplaced. Oscar Francis reports on an official investigation into a singularly striking case, that of a helicopter-borne constable who dropped their pistol into an illegal cannabis plantation.

You know how sometimes you find yourself down a YouTube rabbit hole and all of a sudden it’s 3am and you’re thinking way too much about UFOs? Well, that’s me with PDFs that are hundreds of pages long and filled with banal descriptions of government operations.

On first glance, the report appeared like so many others I’d come across in the course of my OIA obsession: a jumbled string of police jargon, practically unintelligible even without the thick blacked-out strips where a censor redacted all the interesting bits. It wasn’t until the fifth line that I really sat up and took notice.

Between 12 and 3pm on Monday the 7th of March 2022, [redacted] was working as part of the cannabis recovery operation, Op Emerald. [Redacted] recalls collecting the Glock at [redacted] and did not realise it was gone until returning to [redacted] three hours later. [Redacted] had been winched into three plots during the stated time frame.

Operation Emerald is the decades-old police practice of using helicopters to seize cannabis growing in remote areas of bush. The controversial operation was scrapped in 2021 but a scaled-back version was revived in time for the 2022 harvest.

To confiscate cannabis crops from remote sites with lots of trees, the helicopter hovers while a police officer is winched down to the ground on the end of a very long cable. The officer then detaches themself until they’re ready to be winched back up into the helicopter holding a big armful of the devil’s lettuce.

The report detailed how a certain constable started the day’s work with their pistol in its holster, but when the Air Force helicopter landed three hours (and three cannabis plots) later, the gun was nowhere to be seen.

Details of SPIR: The Glock pistol was a standard issue Police weapon. It was in the load state with a full magazine attached. the firearm was holstered in a Police issue holster with working locking mechanisms. [sic] The Glock was noticed missing at about 3pm on Monday the 7th of March 2022.

News about the missing pistol was dutifully passed up the chain of command.

Action/s taken: Upon discovery of the missing firearm a notification was made to the relevant Crime Manager and Area Commander.

An excerpt from the official report.

Police had to ask the Air Force if they wouldn’t mind taking the constable back to look for their pistol.

On Tuesday the 8th of March 2022 two members of the cannabis recovery team returned to the plots to search for the firearm with assistance from the Air Force. The forearm [sic] was not located. 

They returned with no more (but no fewer) radii and ulnae, and they certainly did not find the pistol they had been sent for.

On Wednesday the 9th of March 2022 two dog teams, two cover people and three Specialist Search members returned to the site with the assistance of the Air Force.

Have you ever messed up a job so severely that it diverted an Air Force helicopter twice, along with tying up two police dogs for the day?

Officers trained in specialist search are experts in minutely examining crime scenes for scraps of evidence. You usually see them dressed like ghosts on TV crime scenes, busily scouring streets for bullet casings. Cover people are officers whose job it is to ensure nobody sneaks up on the searchers while they’re looking at the ground intensely.

The constable who lost the pistol was not sent back to search on the second day.

The firearm was located under downed foliage at the site of [redacted] winch extraction.

When you lost something as a kid, did your mum ever tell you to look where you saw it last? 

[Redacted] had been tangled by vegetation when being lifted and the logical inference is that this is how the firearm became lost. The firearm was drawn from the Palmerston North Station Armory and has been restored.

The constable’s pistol got snagged on a bush. The search party found it and returned it to Palmerston North. Senior management was dutifully informed.

Report noted – a near miss!

A near miss indeed. Desperate for more details, I sent a query to police and received a statement attributed to Manawatū area commander Inspector Ross Grantham.

He revealed that the constable who lost the pistol usually worked in domestic violence prevention and has since resigned.

No prosecutions resulted from the seizure of the minor cannabis plantation, although about 4000 plants were destroyed. Five prosecutions resulted from police operations in the district over the season, Inspector Grantham said.

He said that since the incident, officers were more conscious that they needed to ensure their pistols were still attached to their belts when they were being winched.

Any incidents involving holsters were referred to the police armory to check they were working correctly.

“In this instance, the holsters were appropriate, the issue was interference from the bush the officer was being winched down into,” Inspector Grantham said.

But was it specifically a cannabis bush which interfered with a police pistol? Well, I forgot to ask, so I guess we’ll never know.

Keep going!