11 Jun 2020

Police now say Armed Response Teams never fired a sponge bullet

4:39 pm on 11 June 2020

Police have done a U-turn and now say Armed Response Teams never fired a sponge bullet.

A sponge round and launcher.

A sponge round and launcher. Photo: NZ POLICE

The bullets are large rounds of dense, blunt material designed not to penetrate skin. They are fired from a gas launcher with a range of about 30m.

They have been used by United States police against Black Lives Matter protesters, causing serious injuries.

The weapons have been available to armed offenders squads and special tactical units since 2015.

On Wednesday, on RNZ's Morning Report Police Commissioner Andrew Coster cited the use of sponge round weapons during the trial of Armed Response Teams (ARTs) as an example of a "less-lethal option" the police used to de-escalate situations.

The ARTs were mobile armed police teams that were fiercely criticised for poor record keeping, a lack of community consultation, and that they would disproportionately target Māori and Pasifika communities, a concern which proved accurate.

Coster was appearing on Morning Report yesterday to discuss his decision the previous day to axe the teams.

RNZ then asked police to clarify if Coster's comments about the sponge rounds was an indication police intended to roll the weapons out more widely.

Police said in a statement the rounds were an option that "will be considered as part of the work being undertaken into our broad tactical capability".

Today on Morning Report, Coster clarified there were no plans to widen the use of the weapons.

He said "his understanding" was the weapons were used during the trial of the roving armed police units.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.

Andrew Coster Photo: Pool / NZME

However, this afternoon he clarified that they were in fact not used.

Coster said the weapons had been used in 14 incidents in total since they were rolled out, and he could not see them ever being used for crowd control.

The police have 40 launchers nationwide, he said.

There are 20 armed offenders squads in New Zealand.

Coster said there were "no immediate plans" for frontline police to use the weapons and any such change would go out for public consultation.

He said recent uses of the weapons involved people who were either trying to harm themselves or police officers with knives.

"The use of sponge rounds in these instances has likely prevented people from being seriously injured or killed."

He said the vast majority of serious incidents that police attended every year were resolved without needing to use firearms, sponge rounds, tasers or pepper spray.