20 Sep 2016

Police too busy for brawl that shook Tokoroa court walls

6:45 am on 20 September 2016

Police were too under-resourced to handle a warning over a fight brewing between rival gangs at Tokoroa District Court in May, internal ministry memos reveal.

Tokoroa District Court

Tokoroa District Court Photo: Google Maps

An hour-and-a-half after Tokoroa District Court staff called police on 6 May, a brawl between rival gangs broke out, forcing the judge to lock himself in his chambers.

Internal Ministry of Justice documents released to RNZ described rival gang members armed with weapons including a screwdriver, a spanner and a handsaw fighting in the foyer of the court.

Court staff risked their own safety to drag women and children inside the locked office, the documents showed.

Released to RNZ under the Official Information Act, documents - some of which are heavily redacted - said court staff earlier phoned Tokoroa Police Station and notified them "something was brewing".

The gang members had been gathering on the road outside the court about 11am and one of the group repeatedly entered to check the court appearance list - presumably looking for a name of a defendant.

The documents said a member of a rival gang was due to appear that day.

The local police said they would do a "walk-by" but that never happened.

An hour-and-a-half later, the fight broke out on the street and continued inside the foyer of the courthouse.

It involved 15 people and some of the gang members were trying to fight their way into the courtroom.

Staff reported that at the time, fighting in the foyer was blocked the front entrance of the court and no one could get out.

Inside the courtroom itself, the registrar acted quickly and locked the doors. She stopped members of the public from leaving, including one man who was distraught, saying his children were in the foyer outside.

The judge locked himself in his chambers.

In an email to an unknown person, the Judge described what it was like inside the courtroom.

"... The main court door was flexing, as were the adjacent walls, as this huge brawl continued. Flexing, I am assuming, because the aggressors were trying to get into court."

The judge later praised the actions of the court registrar.

"If it hadn't been for the quick reaction of [name withheld] (Civil Registrar) in coming into court and locking the main court door behind her, the brawl would have got into the courtroom where the agressors' object was to get at [rival gang member]. [Name withheld] deserves high commendation for her brave actions done at great risk to her own safety."

A spokesperson for the ministry confirmed the staff member received a chief executive award - the highest accolade in the ministry.

The documents also show there were no security officers at the court at the time.

This was despite guidelines issued by Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue just a month earlier in which she said there should be two security officers present in a criminal list court.

The brawl only broke up when police arrived. They made five arrests.

Emails from senior Ministry of Justice managers described the fight as posing serious risks to members of the public and staff.

They said it was "simply good luck" that there were no serious injuries.

One manager said despite that, the psychological issues may take some time for the children to overcome.

In a briefing paper to Chief Justice Sian Elias, a senior manager said a colleague had asked the police area commander why police failed to respond to the initial call for assistance from court staff.

"The reply was that police had responded to [redacted] and did not have the resource available at the time to act on the court's request."

One group of gang members appeared at the Tokoroa courthouse while members of the other gang were sent to Rotorua.

The manager concluded security staff had no way of predicting there would be trouble, based on who was appearing in court that day.

According to another email between ministry staff, there has been an ongoing struggle for power between the gangs for the local drug trade, with brawls in and outside the Rotorua courts over the past 12 months.

A ministry spokesperson declined to say whether security had been revamped at the Tokoroa District Court as a result of the brawl, noting that information could affect on court security.

However the ministry was boosting total court security officer numbers by 20 full-time positions, the spokesperson said - roughly a 20 percent increase in staff numbers.

It was not clear whether that would affect Tokoroa.