Hawke's Bay officers on trial for assault before Gregory McPeake's death

Officers at the crime scene last year (Newshub.)
Officers at the crime scene last year (Newshub.)

Lawyers for four Hawke's Bay police officers standing trial accused of assaulting a man who died while being arrested say their force was justified.

Gregory McPeake was pepper-sprayed, Tasered and set upon by two police dogs during the arrest attempt last year; it came after Mr McPeake refused to open his car door.

The four officers have name suppression for the course of the expected three-week trial and cameras are not allowed in court.

Two of the officers are charged with assaulting Mr McPeake using a Taser as a weapon.

The other two are charged with assaulting Mr McPeake using a police dog as a weapon.

All four deny the charges.

Mr McPeake, 53, died in the early hours of March 13 last year after a standoff with police in Napier suburb of Westshore.

Earlier in the night Mr McPeake had allegedly assaulted both his parents with a club in Hastings, seriously injuring his 76-year-old father Raymond.

Rachel Adams, lawyer for one of the accused officers, told the jury of six men and six women the sole question they need to consider is whether the force displayed was reasonable in the circumstances.

Ms Adams said the officers at the time believed Mr McPeake, who was morbidly obese and weighed 179 kilograms, may have had a crossbow in his possession.

They knew he was capable of serious violence, having assaulted his 76-year-old father Raymond earlier in the night.

They also had reason to believe he had been using drugs and was contemplating suicide, Ms Adams said.

She told the court it wasn't a case of "arm chair analysis in hindsight", but rather a situation in which the officers had to act quickly and decisively.

She added that her client was fresh out of Police College and had never before been in a situation like the one presented to her.

Susan Hughes, defence lawyer for another of the officers, said the accused did not know that Mr McPeake had drunk and smoked cannabis and that he had heart problems.

"Yes he used force - he did that to effect arrest - [but] he is not a criminal."

Earlier in his opening address, Crown prosecutor Ben Vanderkolk stressed there was no link between the actions taken by the four officers and the death of Mr McPeake.

Mr Vanderkolk said the tactics used by police to arrest Mr McPeake were heavily influenced by briefings between officers earlier in the night describing him as suicidal and possibly in possession of a crossbow.

The arrest began when an officer placed spikes at the exit of the Napier car park to stop Mr McPeake from leaving in his Honda SUV.

Three officers then approached the vehicle from either side.

Mr McPeake was seen through the window moving, Mr Vanderkolk said.

When he failed to obey commands from police, the windows of the vehicle were smashed with bolt cutters.

Mr McPeake remained in his car.

Two officers pepper-sprayed Mr McPeake - one in the back of the head and one in the face - Mr Vanderkolk said. These two officers are not on trial.

Mr McPeake appeared to be resistant and  "made a grab for the keys of the car", Mr Vanderkolk said.

The car didn't start but he managed to close a car door and lock it, injuring himself on the broken glass stuck in door.

He then "struck out at police officers from within the vehicle", Mr Vanderkolk said.

Two of the defendants then fired their Tasers into the body of Mr McPeake through the broken car windows.

Despite delivering about five seconds of highly intense electrical charge, this was ineffective. Mr McPeake tore the probes away and remained in his car.

He was displaying "ongoing resistance", Mr Vanderkolk said.

Police dogs were then set on Mr McPeake from either side of the vehicle by two of the defendants, Mr Vanderkolk said.

He managed to get one of the dogs tangled in the wires of one of the Tasers. He also handled the other dog by the snout.

An officer then decided to physically pull Mr McPeake from the car, who was holding onto an internal handle.

The officer used his baton to "twist free" the hand of Mr McPeake from where he was holding, Mr Vanderkolk said.

"He was not removed - he falls", Mr Vanderkolk said.

At this point, Mr McPeake was face down in the car park on his stomach kicking around at police. His arms and legs were then pinned down, Mr Vanderkolk said.

Mr McPeake then became "very unresponsive".

First-aid was administered immediately by police and paramedics. Their efforts continued for 40 minutes, but Mr McPeake died about 2:10am.

The Crown is set to call almost 30 witnesses over the course of the trial, many of them local police officers.

A Taser expert from the Upper Hutt police is also set to give evidence for the Crown, along with the police National Coordinator of dog training from Porirua.

Mr McPeake's father Raymond, who was beaten by his son on the night, is also set to give evidence for the Crown.

His daughter will also give evidence for the Crown.

Mr McPeake's death and police actions are still the subject of active investigations by three separate organisations: Police, the Independent Police Conduct Authority and the coroner's office.

The trial is set down for three weeks but is expected to conclude at the end of the next week.