Northland police apologise, IPCA making enquiries after traumatised teens held at gunpoint in Whangārei park

Northland Police have apologised and admit they regret an incident in which two innocent teenagers relaxing in a park last week were held at gunpoint, leaving them "extremely traumatised".

The pair - a 17-year-old boy and his 16-year-old girlfriend - were in Mander Park in Whangārei on Tuesday, November 17, when officers swarmed the area in search of an armed offender who had shot at police that morning.

Police had received information that the gunman, who they believed was still armed, was in the park and may have been meeting with an associate.

The boy's mother, who wishes to remain anonymous, was picking her other children up from school at the time, but dropped everything to get to the park when she received a panicked call from her terrified son.

"He said 'mum they've got guns, mum, they're coming for me'," she recounted. "The next thing I knew they were screaming and upset and I could hear my son yelling 'don't shoot us'.

"He was scared, crying; his girlfriend was crying as well. I said 'I'll rush down to you now'. I went to the park to go and get them. The whole time I was on the phone with them, and I heard the police tell them to get down."

What she couldn't see was that police officers had approached her son and his girlfriend with their firearms drawn, thinking they may be the alleged gunman and his associate.

Police say the boy had a hoodie over so his face wasn't visible, but what they could see matched physical descriptions of the shooter. They say they asked him to identify himself, but he "refused to engage".

With his mother still on the line, the boy told her he was going to make a run for it.

"He was getting agitated and scared," she explained. "He was saying 'mum, I'm gonna run, I'm gonna run' because he's seen other people run.

"That was his natural instinct because he was scared. I said 'don't run, it's going to get you in trouble and make things worse'."

Police say given the seriousness of the situation, officers escalated their response and took him into custody to establish his identity.

It was at this point police say he complied with their instructions, and the boy's mother listened in relief as another officer confirmed he wasn't the person they were looking for. 

However upon her arrival at the scene, she was disturbed by the lack of concern shown by the cops who'd just held her son and his girlfriend at gunpoint.

"I was still crying when these two police officers came over to me and said 'we didn't mean to do that'," she said.

"That was it - they didn't offer any help. I said 'I'm gonna take them', because I just wanted to get them out of there."

'He was targeted because he's a young Māori'

The person police were actually looking for is accused of firing several shots at an officer in Whangārei that morning, during a pursuit that began after he fled from a checkpoint. None of the shots hit the patrol vehicle, and no officers were injured.

Police arrested a 24-year-old man over the alleged offences on Wednesday. He faced a number of charges at Whangārei District Court last week, including firearms offences.

But the boy's mother isn't satisfied with the response. She acknowledges police were looking for an armed offender, but thinks they should be approaching these situations "in a different way".

She says her son and his girlfriend were left extremely traumatised by the incident, and had to take the rest of the week off their course to get their heads straight. More than a week on, they're still shaken by the ordeal.

"You should feel safe around the cops, but they don't, which is really sad," the boy's mother said.

"The guy they were chasing - why the hell would they be chilling in the park with their girlfriend on the grass? That doesn't make sense. I'm really mad.

"I don't think it's good enough that they didn't offer any support and that he was targeted because he's a young Māori boy."

A 2019 Tactical Options Research report shows Māori are disproportionately subjected to use of force by police. It found that while Māori males aged 17-40 make up less than 3 percent of New Zealand's population, they account for 35 percent of all such incidents.

She has since filed a complaint with the police and Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA), and also wrote a letter detailing the incident to Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.

'Our staff involved had good intentions'

Police responded on Monday by offering to apologise in a face-to-face meeting or by letter. As her son no longer trusts police, he opted for the letter, which police say they have written.

Northland District Commander Superintendent Tony Hill told Newshub the officers at the scene were unable to stay and provide support for the teens because they were sent elsewhere moments later.

He says police regret the incident, but that the staff involved had "the right intentions to keep the community safe".

"This was a fast-moving event, and staff responded with the information they had available to them at the time, which included the serious risk of a wanted individual being in possession of a firearm who was outstanding," he said.

"Staff attending the park were dispatched to another location of interest as part of their enquiries shortly after, so weren’t able to remain in the park as long as they would have liked to provide reassurance to the two individuals."

The IPCA confirmed to Newshub it had received the complaint and is making initial enquiries.