Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said an alternative to the police’s de-escalation approach to anti-warrant protesters would involve the deployment of tear gas and batons on the grounds of Parliament.
Coster told Q+A’s Jack Tame that police are taking their existing de-escalation approach because they believe the alternative of a forceful pushback cannot be justified.
“I think the police could wipe out the protest, but I don’t think the harm that would result from how we would need to do this is acceptable compared to the harm the protest is doing,” he said.
“The balance we have here is keeping the peace and enforcing the law. The tactics have to be appropriate for the safest outcome.
The police commissioner used the Springbok Tower and Bastion Point protests as examples of “low points” in police history that he intended to avoid repeating.
“I would note that the situation in the Springbok Tour, for example, led to a long-term loss of confidence in the police, because the violence used was so confrontational,” he said.
“The situation ahead of us could very easily become the same, with enforcement and police intervention. I want us to explore all reasonable options before we come to that.
He noted that recent protests like the occupation of Ihumātao in 2019 had been dispelled without violent confrontation.
When asked to describe what a more forceful response might look like, Coster said officer reinforcements would have “profound consequences”.
“The police should move around using batons, probably using tear gas, to clear this crowd from the field. This will likely lead to a protracted confrontation and we have a larger picture of protests across the country over the same issue.
“During the Springbok Tour, one of the things was a real hardening of protest activity based on the response from law enforcement, so we have to look very carefully at how to deal with that whole image.
He said even forcibly removing the occupiers on the first day of the protest, when tents were being erected, would not have been possible for the officers.
“The level of force we would have had to use to succeed at that time would have been unacceptable to most New Zealanders and would have been subject to criticism in terms of legality.”
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He said police have contacted their counterparts in Ottawa for advice. The Canadian capital is where the first demonstrations of the anti-warrant convoy began.
“This protest seems to be most closely modeled on the one in Canada. I would note that while it’s not currently blocking critical infrastructure, it’s different, we have a crowd situation rather than people camping in vehicles.
Ottawa’s police chief resigned on Wednesday amid criticism that he hasn’t done enough to stop protests taking place in the city.