23 Jul 2019

Warning shots fired near fleeing driver were unreasonable - IPCA

1:11 pm on 23 July 2019

A police officer unreasonably fired three warning gunshots near a fleeing driver, and another officer unreasonably kicked the driver, the Independent Police Conduct Authority has found.

Police generic

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Police said they accepted the findings and acknowledged the officer made some errors of judgment, but said the pursuit was otherwise conducted safely and resolved successfully.

In Huntly in late 2017, an officer laid road spikes on State Highway 1 to stop a fleeing driver, who was wanted in relation to a family harm incident. He had fled from officers and kicked one in the thighs to escape.

The driver saw the spikes and tried to avoid them. As he was reversing to drive the other way, the officer standing behind the car was concerned he would be run down.

He yelled at the driver to "get out of the car" and to stop, then fired three gunshots into the ground, about 0.5m away from the fleeing car.

The officer said he was concerned that if the man turned the car around successfully he would have driven the wrong way down the highway and potentially caused a crash.

The IPCA found that shooting the gun was unreasonable and unnecessary because there were other, less dangerous options available to him, such as pepper spray, a taser and a baton. It found the car was reversing slowly and he could have moved clear of it.

The authority also found the officer should not have even been armed at the time. He thought the fleeing driver may have been involved in an earlier, unrelated armed robbery but the authority found he should have known it was a different matter and there was no suggestion this man had a gun.

Another officer in a following car pushed the man's car off the road so he could not drive off, which was found to be a reasonable action.

The driver surrendered and was lying on the ground but would not let go of the seatbelt, preventing arrest. Officers tried to move him with force and could not, so one officer kicked him in the midriff which he said "wouldn't have hurt him too much but it was enough for him to sort of reflex and let go".

The IPCA found this was excessive. The report said there were two officers with the man and two others nearby, so the offender was posing a minimal threat as he lay on the ground. There were less forceful options available.

The authority found the police were justified in beginning the pursuit and laying the road spikes.

Police accepted the findings, and noted the pursuit was within the law and police policy.

"Police deal with fast-moving and ever-changing situations every day, and split-second decisions need to be made to keep the community and police safe," Waikato District Commander acting superintendent Warwick Morehu said.

"In this instance, we acknowledge that some of the decisions made by officers could have been better, and alternative tactical options should have been considered.

"However, we note that no one was injured and this high-speed fleeing driver incident was resolved successfully.

"Following the incident and investigation, the officers involved have been supported and have had intensive training to deal with their situational awareness, decision making, and use of tactical options."