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Police Commissioner feels the heat: Why PM had to apologise over gun incident

Author
Adam Pearse, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Mar 2023, 7:05am
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster has admitted to failures in parts of police's response to the cyclone. Photo / Dean Purcell
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster has admitted to failures in parts of police's response to the cyclone. Photo / Dean Purcell

Police Commissioner feels the heat: Why PM had to apologise over gun incident

Author
Adam Pearse, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Mar 2023, 7:05am

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster says a belated report from the manager of roadworkers threatened with guns in Hawke’s Bay is what led to Prime Minister Chris Hipkins disputing the claims and triggering outrage from communities who feel the Government isn’t listening to their concerns about looting.

Coster, speaking to the Herald, said it was his understanding that when officers attended and spoke to a person managing the roadworkers late on February 17, it was agreed more information would be provided to police about the incident and as such, was not recorded by officers as per standard protocol.

However, that didn’t occur until after a briefing was provided to Hipkins on February 20, following which he said there had only been “third or fourth-hand accounts” of guns being pulled on people at checkpoints.

The matter has inflamed already heightened tensions among residents in Hawke’s Bay and other East Coast communities, who are claiming people will arm themselves to protect their homes which have been ravaged by Cyclone Gabrielle.

Coster, who apologised to Hipkins for the incident on Wednesday morning, said police’s failure to reassure people they would be kept safe would be a central question he wants to be answered in the inevitable debrief of police’s role in the cyclone response.

Adding insult to injury, Coster revealed there was insufficient information to identify the people who threatened the roadworkers with guns, and the investigation would only continue if more details were provided.

“Obviously this happened at night with vehicles driving past the roadworkers concerned so there [are] some constraints with that,” Coster admitted, saying no one could remember the offenders’ licence plates.

It comes as police have introduced a second 24-hour mobile police base in the region to make officers more visible and accessible to cyclone-impacted locals.

A first base was deployed to the Puketapu area west of Napier last week. A third base would become available in the coming days and they would be moved around the region as the roading network was repaired.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins with Puketapu fruit grower Ratahi Cross during a visit to Hawke's Bay today. Photo / Warren Buckland

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins with Puketapu fruit grower Ratahi Cross during a visit to Hawke's Bay today. Photo / Warren Buckland

Despite the firearms incident not being recorded in the usual fashion, it was communicated to the point where it was included as a bullet point in a nine-page police intelligence report compiled on February 18.

However, that detail was not included in the briefings given to Hipkins ahead of his February 20 post-Cabinet press conference - an oversight according to Coster.

Hipkins then disputed the claim when it was put to him by journalists. Days later, when the incident was confirmed, Hipkins apologised and revealed he’d been given the wrong information by police, something Coster has since apologised for.

“The lesson for me in this is where we have people strongly asserting that something occurred, then there needs to be an extra layer of checking to validate that or not,” Coster told the Herald.

“We had a range of things being reported in the community, many of which appear to have been simply untrue, so sifting between those things is not necessarily all that easy.”

The incident has deepened resentment within Hawke’s Bay that the response from police and the Government to claims of looting were cold and focused too heavily on the fact that reported crime had remained steady for the region, despite obvious impacts on communication caused by the cyclone.

Hipkins on Thursday said he regretted his role in that and speaking to RNZ, Coster accepted his observations were “unhelpful” for communities fearful of looters.

The Herald first reported Puketapu locals were blocking off roads and could arm themselves after a looting incident. Other communities have since followed suit by installing checkpoints.

Like with any natural disaster, police officials would soon review police’s role in the recovery and Coster told the Herald he wanted to investigate how officers weren’t able to make people feel safe, despite sending in 145 additional officers to the district.

“We haven’t been able to create the kind of assurance around safety that some communities have been seeking and I think we have to acknowledge it’s completely understandable for people to be feeling fearful at this time,” he said.

“We’ve had a significant police presence on the ground but for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to create that assurance, that’s an area that I’m keen to dig into and better understand whether there’s anything we could have done differently to create a greater sense of safety for the communities affected.”

On Coster, Hipkins today said: “Look, I’ve had a conversation with him this morning, [Coster has] expressed disappointment that the police gave me the wrong information and of course, I was disappointed they gave me the wrong information as well, although, as I always do, I’ll accept responsibility for my own comments and I made it clear I regret passing on that information.”

“It was incorrect and I think the key point now is taking on board the feedback that we’ve received from those communities.”

Hipkins then confirmed he was happy with the work Coster had done in the cyclone recovery; “but clearly the situation was far from ideal.”

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins with Puketapu orchardist Mark Ericksen. Photo / Warren Buckland

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins with Puketapu orchardist Mark Ericksen. Photo / Warren Buckland

Asked if he felt Hipkins was confident in him as commissioner, Coster said: “[Hipkins] expressed confidence publicly today, he appreciated the apology and we moved forward.”

Coster was “absolutely” confident in his ability to continue as the commissioner.

Police Minister and Napier MP Stuart Nash, speaking at a Napier community meeting last night, had expressed his displeasure with Coster’s comments.

“I also acknowledge that having the Police Commissioner coming out and saying, ‘What are you talking about, stats haven’t changed,’ is probably the wrong message to the people of Whirinaki and Bay View,” Nash told Hawke’s Bay Today.

The new static police bases wouldn’t be accompanied by more officers in the region as Coster had received no evidence from officers on the ground that more resources were necessary.

Coster explained the police’s strategy to deter looting up until this point was to be “mobile and unpredictable”, however, the static bases were a shift away from that tactic, but a necessary one in his view as it allowed greater capacity for the public to report crime.

Coster said any errors made in the response did not take away from the extraordinary efforts of officers in cyclone-affected regions - a sentiment regularly reinforced by locals.

Nash, alongside Napier Mayor Kirsten Wise, Hastings Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst and Police Eastern District Commander Superintendent Jeanette Park, were among the 200 people at yesterday’s public meeting at the Crab Farm Winery in Napier’s Bay View.

Residents spoke of encountering intruders, RNZ reported.

Police Eastern District Commander Superintendent Jeanette Park (left), Napier MP Stuart Nash and Napier Mayor Kirsten Wise attend a public meeting to listen to crime concerns following Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo / Paul Taylor

Police Eastern District Commander Superintendent Jeanette Park (left), Napier MP Stuart Nash and Napier Mayor Kirsten Wise attend a public meeting to listen to crime concerns following Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo / Paul Taylor

One man said someone had been in the bedroom and living room in his home, and had shone a torch into the children’s room. Others said they felt unsafe over what appeared to be would-be looters scoping out their properties.

One resident was shaken to see motorcyclists videoing property outside his home, while a woman said it was disconcerting to see patched gang members walking up her street.

Earlier today, National police spokesman Mark Mitchell lambasted Hipkins for his handling of the roadworkers’ firearms report.

“Hipkins is a complete and utter idiot for coming out and saying and using an example, roadworkers that were out there actually trying to help their community, held at gunpoint ... and the Prime Minister of the day thinks it’s a good idea to use that as an example of it hasn’t been backed up, its third-hand it’s not factual when they’d reported it on the day.

“People are very angry and they got up and they used examples of this in the meeting last night where they said, ‘Why do we get these central Government people out here beating their chest saying, look at what a great job we’re doing, when no one’s come to see us, when we’ve had communications cut off, when we’ve had looting going on, when we don’t feel safe, we’re doing our own patrols and our own roadblocks that aren’t being supported and then we’re being told that everything’s fine and crime is reducing, [the Government has] been completely tone deaf.”

Mitchell, speaking on Newstalk ZB, was staying in Napier’s Esk Valley with locals who had been without power for 16 days and said the place looks like a “war zone”.

“[Residents] have all got the same concerns, law and order - they feel like there’s lawlessness out there, they want to see more police,” he said.

“I said from the start, get overwhelming [police] numbers in there - the first thing you have to do is to make people feel safe.”

Housing Minister Dr Megan Woods, appearing on Newstalk ZB alongside Mitchell, refuted the National MP’s claim that ministers hadn’t been visible in the region, noting that she would be there alongside other ministers tomorrow.

“That’s actually just nonsense to say no one has been to the area,” Woods said.

“There has been a constant flow of ministers that have been into the affected areas, it’s factually incorrect Mark.”

Hipkins had made three trips to Hawke’s Bay, his first on February 17. Labour ministers including Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty were also in the region the following weekend.

Local MPs Stuart Nash and Anna Lorck had also been regularly in the region.

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