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Above and bottom, the SSG at work after a homicide in Lower Hutt earlier this year. Photos: STUFF

Ears & eyes to the ground

From death, destruction and serious crime to royal visits, the Police Specialist Search Group will be part of the response or the preparation.

It’s not the sort of police work that you often see on TV or wins awards. The SSG is the crew that gets called in to do the more prosaic and unglamorous behind-the-scenes tasks, the literal legwork required to comb a crime scene or scan a venue for threats ahead of a royal visit.

It was also the team that was waiting in the wings after the Whakaari/White Island eruption in December that resulted in the deaths of 21 people.

SSG members from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch were sent to the Huntly Mines Rescue Centre to train as part of a backup plan if the scheduled Defence Force E Squadron team’s entry to the island was not able to take place.

The preparation involved practising with breathing apparatus and situational scenarios. Fortunately, the squadron operation to recover the bodies was able to proceed, followed by a Police search and rescue entry to the island a few days later.

SSG members still had a role to play as part of the Police support team at Whakatane and as members of the Disaster Victim Identification team.

SSG teams were part of the response to the Canterbury earthquakes, and the Carterton balloon crash in 2012. They were also on standby for the Pike River mine re-entry if it was deemed necessary.

The team during training in December for a Whakaari/White Island back-up plan.

To be a good SSG team member you need to be calm, methodical and meticulous, says Senior Sergeant John Battersby, OC of the Central Specialist Search Group.

That’s a polite way of saying that claustrophobics or those with a short attention span need not apply. If the idea of squeezing into tight spaces or crawling under houses for hours at a time fills you with dread, the SSG is probably not for you.

Each group has 25 to 30 part-time staff, drawn mostly from road policing, CIB and community and general duties, in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. They are deployed outside their regions for significant events, including VIP visits, major sports fixtures and homicides, as well as search warrants, crime scene evidence protection and covert searches.

And don’t forget the bombs. It was the fear of potential terrorist attacks at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland that led to the formation of the SSG. Staff were trained to search for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) using techniques developed by the British security services during the era of heightened IRA (Irish Republican Army) activity in Britain.

The Wellington group had a 38 per cent increase in workload in the year to June 2019, largely as a result of the March 15 terror attacks in Christchurch. Due to increased public awareness, there was a notable rise in the number of bomb threats, additional precautions being taken, and suspicious packages reported in the weeks following the attacks.

SSG searches can take a long time. A team working at the scene of a rural house fire in Central District spent four days sifting every inch of burnt residue for the remains of a person who was believed to have been in the house. The team was able to show conclusively that no human remains were present.

At the scene of a fatal plane crash in Masterton last year, the team had to contend with the wreckage and wires embedded in vegetation as part of the investigation and recovery of a body in the plane.

Gang pad searches are notoriously messy and hazardous. Apparently, gang members delight in taking care to hide any evidence among unsavoury clutter.

In the case of bomb threats, SSG will do an immediate assessment to determine the validity of the threat. If a possible IED is discovered, the Defence Force E Squadron is called in to render it safe.

Recent bomb threats in Wellington have included a suspicious suitcase left in the watch house at the Wellington Central Police Station (causing the evacuation of an entire city block), multiple threats about bombs around Wellington in September 2019, and a man on a city bus who said he had a bomb in an ammunition case he was carrying. Fortunately, they were all false alarms.

Sometimes, the threat finds you. While attending a callout at a search warrant in Wellington last year, SSG discovered two IEDs hidden in a wall cavity.

And did we mention that to qualify to join the SSG, you need to be able to be able to create the functional parts of an IED – minus the explosive? That’s so you can recognise one in the field and determine the risk level before touching it.

Defence Force E Squadron

Also known as the “bomb squad”, E Squadron is administered by the SAS (Special Air Services) unit whose motto is “Into Harm’s Way”. They are trained to detect, identify, render safe and dispose of munitions and explosives, but only after they have received authorisation from police. E Squadron works closely with SSG for VIP visits and when suspicious packages are found.

On average, they attend one job a week across New Zealand, but in the three weeks after the March 15 attacks in Christchurch, that number increased to 28 as the public became more worried about suspicious packages and unattended packages and bomb threats rose.

The team also works in the Pacific as part of a Five Eyes agreement, helping to clear explosive remnants from previous battlegrounds in the Pacific Islands.

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