Inside the skirmish line
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There was a moment on the skirmish line at Parliament on March 2 when police officers in the thick of battle with out-of-control protesters feared that the tables would be turned on them.
After successfully clearing hundreds of occupiers from Parliament’s inner grounds, a phalanx of police were wedged against the closed iron gates at one end of the precinct near Lambton Quay, braving a hail of weapons, including paving stones, from a hard core of agitators on the other side.
Hamilton officer Senior Constable Derek Lamont was on a small hill just behind the gate. “At that point, I thought we were going to lose,” he says. “I was preparing myself to get a kicking. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw three men in black walking past the Cenotaph. I thought, I hope I know what they are going to do, and then they released the 40-millimetre rounds.”
STG and AOS members began firing non-lethal sponge rounds at protesters and it was a turning point for police, giving them time to regroup and successfully counter and disperse the remnants of the protest.
National controller Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers says the decision to deploy the 40mm rounds was not taken lightly, “but given the situation facing us, that tactical option was necessary, and proportionate”.
Staff on the ground believe it was a life saver. Derek says he is grateful to Police for “having the guts to authorise the deployment”.
“There were still a lot more bricks being thrown and more fighting after that, but it allowed us time to regroup. Even at that point, they were throwing pallets over the fence onto officers.”
Senior Sergeant Wayne Hunter, in charge of a section of 110 officers, was also on the hill by the gate. He could see officers being “hammered with the cobblestones”, and admits he too was worried the fight to regain Parliament grounds might be lost at that point.
But the sponge rounds and the use of fire hoses on the police side were the tactics that made the difference, repelling the last resisters, some of whom had picked up a fire hose themselves and turned it on police until the 40mm rounds effectively dissuaded them from that.
The country was watching via video and live streaming services from the moment the surprise police operation began to unfold.
In the gloom of the early morning, Eagle had arrived overhead, and hundreds of police began massing in the streets bordering Parliament.
The aim was to clear the grounds of an intractable and disorderly group of anti-government protesters who had embedded themselves there since February 9, setting up an unsanitary and illegal tent village, blocking roads with vehicles, harassing the public and refusing to move until their demands were met.
Richard Chambers can now reveal that, despite the flak Police took for not acting sooner – opting for negotiation rather than confrontation in the early stages – planning for removal of the protesters had begun in the first week of the occupation.
“Because we were dealing with a very emotive issue, we had to think carefully about how best to achieve our mission to clear the roads and restore peaceful protest,” he says. “At the start, the appropriate strategy had been de-escalation to ensure safety.
“It was a complex situation. There were a lot of people there – about 1000 at the peaks at weekends – including young people. Behind the scenes we were working on a range of scenarios to find the best way to reach a peaceful conclusion and open the roads for Wellingtonians.
“We also looked at what was happening overseas and liaised with police in Canada and other countries that had experienced similar protest activity.”
Police had separate plans for each street and location around the protest area, including an extraction plan for vehicles and structures that had been erected.
Richard and local controller Wellington District Commander Corrie Parnell drew on the skills and knowledge of tactical commanders, public order policing specialists, the New Zealand Defence Force, Police intel and health and safety experts.
FENZ, medical staff and several government departments, including Oranga Tamariki and Corrections, were part of the behind-the-scenes planning.
The operation involved more than 1100 Police staff, sworn, AOs and Police employees, over four weeks. “I don’t think there is a group in our organisation that hasn’t made a contribution,” Richard says.
Police arrived from around the country, along with resources – riot shield, helmets, high-vis vests, OC spray and goggles.
All this was happening while Police and the country were managing the impact of the Omicron surge.
On March 1, the day before the mobilisation to Parliament, dozens of staff received last-minute tactical training at a location in Porirua. Many didn’t know exactly what they were going to be doing the next day.
Wing 351 from the Police College had their March 3 attestation brought forward by three days so they could join the deployment.
For them, and many other newer staff, it was the first time they had been involved in public order training, let alone an actual event.
Up to 600 officers were at Parliament on March 2. Skirmish lines were formed and forklifts, some of which were driven by qualified police, began to methodically remove vehicles that were blocking streets.
Police used diversion tactics to corral protesters into more controllable groups, while other police fanned out to create cordons, and more police sections entered the grounds of Parliament to begin a decisive clearing away of tents and structures.
They encountered significant violence. Officers who had helmets and riot shields were at the forefront, their colleagues with less protection were in behind, as they pushed against the protest lines, shouting in unison, “Move, move, move.”
Above their heads, projectiles and missiles thrown from the protest lines rained down. Fire extinguishers were set off in officers’ faces and thrown at them.
The first of at least two fires broke out in a tent. A pall of black smoke enveloped those nearby, including Derek. “At one point we were surrounded by fire and couldn’t see because of the smoke. I was coughing and spluttering.
“We became very aware of missiles and accepted our colleagues pushing us out of the way because they could see what we couldn’t see.
“I fell down a few times. I wasn’t injured, but I saw officers who were injured being dragged away and the next thing I know they were standing next to me with a bandaged head.”
Through it all, they held the line.
Many had been on duty since dawn with neither a helmet nor shield between them. Many had limited tactical or public order training, and most had never encountered a riot on such a scale.
But what they did have was the rest of the team and a plan.
Derek says that when the riot kicked off, he was working beside people he had never met before, “but we jelled and worked together as a unit straight away”.
At the end, with control regained, and the last of the protest group dispersed or arrested, the combat-weary officers returned to the basement in Parliament around 8pm. Forty of their number had been injured.
“We regrouped in our original teams and walked into the basement,” Derek says. “It was probably one of the most emotional times I have ever had in Police.
“The shield units, who had been on duty all day, battered and bruised, stood up and applauded the non-shield units as we walked in. Every officer was applauded. For a 56-year-old cop who has been office based for a few years, it did bring a tear to the eye. Everyone was one team.”
Reflecting on the day, Richard notes, “there was not a single police person at the frontline or working behind the scenes who wasn’t prepared to keep working until we achieved our mission”.
When Wayne Hunter, 62, a road policing officer from Tauranga, arrived in Wellington, he was told he was going to be a section commander. “It was a bit of shock. We had three hours to formulate a plan for 110 staff, including 40 officers who had just graduated.
“Logistically, it was huge. My biggest concern was, did we have the gear to do the job. Well, not really. We just had to carry on with what we had – our normal gear. But when people were moaning about not having some equipment, I was thinking that, because of the scale of the operation, we were lucky to have anything.”
Wayne was a 22-year-old constable during the Police response to the 1981 Springbok Tour, on duty at protests in Hamilton and Auckland. He admits he “enjoyed” it. “I didn’t have any responsibilities. I just got stuck in. We had to wear greatcoats because of the risk of Molotov cocktails. It was pretty hot. No vests then, but we did have the old helmets.
“All I did was have a good time,” he says of the 1981 protests. “This time, I thought, ‘I’m in charge of all these people, their safety and welfare. If I make the wrong decision and they get hurt, I’m not going to feel very flash about it’.”
And he did have his moments when he thought it was going pear-shaped. “If I saw a gap, I struggled not to rush in to fill it. I realised that as the commander I had to stay back. We had no radios, we just communicated by yelling at each other.”
Afterwards, Wayne says, he felt good realising that he did, in fact, have the skills for the job. “I didn’t think I had, but obviously, after being in police all this time, they come out when you need them.”
Also at Parliament that day was Police Association Region 5 director Sergeant Sarah Stirling. She too was able to call on her team policing background when she was needed to enter the fray.
“It was full-on straight away. Missiles were being thrown. I kept calling out, ‘Incoming!’ to alert others to put their hands over their heads. I put my head up at one stage and something sprayed on my face. It burned. Luckily, a paramedic was there and put water on my face. I had to ask for some goggles after that.
“I was in charge of nine of the new graduates from Wing 351. We were used in the first skirmish in the early afternoon. They were all into it and speaking to them later, they all reported what a great experience it was.
“It would have been an eye-opener for 80 per cent of the staff who were there.”
For her, it was “one of the best days” of her 40-year Police career. “It was good to have that win. We took so much crap, but we never broke the line. We were professional and resolute.
“In the days after, when we were cleaning up and securing the perimeter, so many people came up to us to say how grateful they were. It buoyed us up. We don’t usually get to hear from good people.”
Richard says he knew that teamwork would save the day. “There were moments where I was concerned for the safety of our staff, but I had confidence that they could deal with the situation as well as look after themselves and their colleagues.”
He acknowledges the comments about a lack of helmets and headgear, saying those concerns will be part of the debrief process of what will surely be remembered as one of the most significant operations in New Zealand’s policing history.
“There have been thousands of messages of support. There is not a person in Police who hasn’t had friends or family reach out to acknowledge the effort of that day.”