8 Dec 2016

Officers cleared of assault to face other inquiries

7:51 pm on 8 December 2016

Four Napier police officers will face an employment investigation and an Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) inquiry, after being cleared of assaulting a man during an arrest.

Close up of a police officer at an incident on a residential street. 6 July 2016.

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The officers had been on trial in the Napier District Court since last Tuesday, accused of assaulting Gregory McPeake with weapons including tasers and police dogs last year.

The jurors deliberated for less than an hour before reaching their verdicts today.

There were gasps in the public gallery as Constable Alexander Simister, Constable Rochelle Bryant, Senior Constable Andrew Knox and a fourth officer with name suppression were found not guilty.

The Eastern Police District Commander, Superintendent Sandra Venables, confirmed at a news conference that the officers would face further scrutiny.

"There's five staff being investigated in regards to employment matters," she said.

The superintendent would not identify the fifth staff member, who had not been charged.

All five would also face an IPCA inquiry.

"Because we have to be transparent and accountable for our actions in the course of our duties, it's a different process for everyone that was involved and, like I said, I acknowledge the McPeake family as well, because we can't forget that Gregory McPeake died during this incident," Ms Venables said.

"But I'm very proud of the fact that we did an extensive, complex investigation and we put it before the courts to make the determination."

During the two-week trial, the court was told Mr McPeake had used a baton-like weapon to assault his elderly father in his Hastings home, leaving the weapon at the bloody scene, in March 2015. His father was hospitalised with a head injury.

Police were told Mr McPeake could be armed with a cross-bow, had been drinking and was suicidal, with nothing left to lose.

They caught up with him at Napier's Westshore, where he refused to get out of his car, despite repeated calls to do so.

They used pepper spray and tasers on him before police dogs were set loose in his tiny Honda SUV and he was dragged from the vehicle face first. He died at the scene, despite efforts by the officers to save him.

A post-mortem examination found he had a cocktail of drugs in his system and the officer's actions had nothing to do with his death.

Ms Venables said the ordeal had been a strain on the McPeake family and on her officers.

"This matter was thoroughly investigated with assistance from out-of-district staff and was subject to extensive review, with the decision being made that it should be put before the courts to make the final and independent determination."

During the trial, the Crown argued the officers had used excessive force against Mr McPeake and failed to reassess the situation as it developed.

In the end, there was no crossbow and Mr McPeake was only ever seen with what appeared to be his angina medication in his hand.

But as Mr Simister's lawyer Doug Rishworth said, the Crown's case was "trial by hindsight" and the officers had to act on the information they had.

The pepper spray was ineffective despite being five times stronger than normal spray issued in other districts. The tasers, while delivering a short jolt of pain, failed to incapacitate the 179kg Mr McPeake.

The officers also feared Mr McPeake could drive off or use his vehicle as a weapon. Defence lawyer Susan Hughes QC said there were times when the officers lost sight of his hands as he reached forward towards the ignition.

Defence lawyer Jonathan Krebs said his client had a duty to protect the community against a man potentially armed with a lethal weapon. To do nothing was not an option, he said.

During the trial it emerged one of the officers involved, Mr Bryant, was only four months out of police college and had never fired a taser before or even seen one being used.

Ms Venables, when asked about that, said: "I don't know the circumstances. You've had the benefit of listening to all the evidence. I've seen the file and read the file. But in regards to that, all I can say is that it was a good thing to put it before the court, a really good thing, it was a good thing for the jury to hear all the evidence and they've made a determination."

The officers had been on full duty since the incident and would remain on the roster.

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