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A parliament protestor sits in front of police, February 10, 2022. (Photo: Marty Melville/ Getty Images)
A parliament protestor sits in front of police, February 10, 2022. (Photo: Marty Melville/ Getty Images)

The BulletinApril 21, 2023

Police bosses in the firing line over parliament protest

A parliament protestor sits in front of police, February 10, 2022. (Photo: Marty Melville/ Getty Images)
A parliament protestor sits in front of police, February 10, 2022. (Photo: Marty Melville/ Getty Images)

Frontline officers acquitted themselves well, the IPCA says. The reviews are less glowing for those back at HQ, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Praise for frontline police during a protest that ran and ran

The morning after the riot that ended the 2022 parliament occupation, The Spinoff’s Toby Manhire called it “one of the ugliest days in our history”. But, he added, “it could have been uglier”, noting that despite the violence, “no one had stormed the houses of parliament. No one had lost their life.” Yesterday’s Independent Police Complaints Authority report into the police response to the three-week protest says broadly the same thing. Overall, it states, “police served the public of New Zealand well in dealing with this difficult and complex set of events”. Of the March 2 riot, the authority found that all the tactics police used to defend themselves and others were justified in the circumstances, and while there were “some isolated incidents of potentially excessive reactive force by police, they generally acted professionally and with remarkable restraint”. The IPCA received more than 250 complaints about the police’s use of force when dealing with protesters during the riot, but the vast majority were from people who had seen the incidents on television or social media.

Top brass took too long to grasp the scale of the challenge

Still, for all its praise for the actions of police, the IPCA found multiple deficiencies, particularly in the preparation and protection of on-the-ground officers on March 2. The day of the riot, those in charge had ruled out mandating hard body armour and many on the frontlines did not even have helmets. The reasoning? “[A] concern that hard body armour and long batons would provoke protesters and engender confrontation and violence,” the IPCA concluded. Writes the Herald’s Claire Trevett in a must-read analysis of the report’s findings (paywalled), “That decision was prompted by a puzzling naivety, given even shifting a bollard had resulted in confrontation and violence. It appears to have been based on the deluded hope that despite all evidence… the protest group could still be reasoned with.”

Trevett is particularly scathing about the failures of Police Commissioner Andrew Coster and Wellington District Commander Corrie Parnell on February 10, a “ridiculous shambles of a day” when police made an aborted attempt to clear the site. But she says the problem with their response was clear from the very start of the occupation, when police decided to “[rely] on protest organisers to abide by the rules, expecting everybody to go home to a nice warm dinner after a day of shouting. By the time they realised that this was not the same as any other protest, it was too late.”

Coster faces questions over political pressure

The day before that first attempt to clear the occupation, Coster spoke with deputy prime minister Grant Robertson, attorney general David Parker and then speaker Trevor Mallard about next moves for police. Coster told the IPCA the conversation didn’t influence his decision to send officers in, but National’s police spokesperson Mark Mitchell says the report leaves some “serious questions unanswered” on potential political pressure put on police. Many frontline officers themselves believed that Coster had bowed to the will of the politicians, the report says: “We were repeatedly told [by officers interviewed] that the direction to proceed with the operation would not have been given unless police had succumbed to the political pressure.” The IPCA also found that a number of current laws, including those on trespass and arrest, were “not fit-for-purpose for the mass public disorder situation” that confronted officers on February 10 and March 2. Yesterday prime minister Chris Hipkins said the government has to “tread carefully” on changing the law, ensuring fundamental rights of assembly and protest continue to be protected.

Conspiracy theorists turn their attention to climate

As New Zealanders return to pharmacies and vaccine centres to top up their Covid resistance with the new bivalent booster, it’s worth remembering what brought hundreds to the parliament occupation in the first place – and how widely misinformation about the proven effectiveness of vaccines and other protective measures continues to circulate. In his book Fear: New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists, disinfo expert Byron Clark warns that as Covid worries wane, those radicalised by the pandemic are turning their attention to climate change, “searching for recruits to the conspiracy that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by self-serving scientists and sinister globalists”

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