Cyclone Gabrielle: PM Chris Hipkins says 'no state of lawlessness' in cyclone-hit regions, no need for military support

The Prime Minister says there is "no state of lawlessness" in eastern cyclone-affected regions and no indication police need the support of the military. 

At his Monday afternoon press conference, Chris Hipkins said police aren't reporting an increase in crime and additional officers are in the region to assist.

"Any suggestion that things are out of control is just wrong and amplifying those kinds of rumours isn't helpful and it doesn't help the police to do their jobs."

Newshub has heard accounts of locals in Hawke's Bay witnessing looting.

"The vulnerable are now getting their stuff stolen. The gangs are coming in, or looters in general. They're threatening people, stealing their stuff. We are very scared, people are very scared," one local said. 

Community roadblocks or checkpoints have been established due to concerns. At one, a traffic management worker told Newshub he had a gun pulled on him by people in a vehicle refusing to stop.

The National Party has proposed doubling the sentences of people convicted of theft or burglary in a region under a state of emergency.

"Looting in a national disaster not only hits victims when they are at their most vulnerable, it wastes precious Police resources when they are needed most," said the party's justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith.

Asked about National's suggestion, Hipkins said he wanted to be careful on law and order "that we're not just responding to unsubstantiated rumours". 

"I've been getting a daily briefing from Police on exactly what they're confronting on the ground. It is true that there's a heightened level of stress in the Hawke's Bay, where people have been without power and without phone lines and so on. 

"But police aren't reporting an increase in crime over and above what they would normally be expecting to deal with on a day-to-day basis. They have surged extra police into the district to provide that additional public reassurance."

He was aware of an incident where a firearm was presented.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Over the past week, at least 59 people have been arrested across the two regions for a variety of offences, but Police Commissioner Andrew Coster told AM dishonesty offences are actually down - though that could be because of the disruption stopping people from reporting it.

An additional 120 staff have been brought into the regions to support local officers as well as the Police Eagle helicopter. Another 25, including iwi and community liaisons, will be there in the coming days. 

Despite that, both ACT and New Zealand First believe the military should also be sent in.

"The Defence Minister needs to invoke Section 9 of the Defence Act," said ACT leader David Seymour. "This means the military can assist the Police with civil powers. Looting gangsters might not think they're so tough when they meet the NZDF."

NZ First leader Winston Peters said such "lawlessness cannot be allowed to continue" and could worsen "if it is not taken seriously". 

"The Prime Minister needs to approve sending Army personnel to assist police to maintain order - it is a state of emergency and is out of control."

The Defence Act says this can happen based on information from the Police Commissioner that an emergency cannot be dealt with by police without the help of armed forces. 

The NZDF is already assisting in the response to the cyclone by bringing in much-needed supplies, helping with rescues and evacuations, and preparing to construct temporary bridges.

ACT Party leader David Seymour.
ACT Party leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Hipkins said the threshold for invoking military support for local police "is a very high one". 

"The police have not given us any indication that we are anywhere near that at the moment. There is no state of lawlessness. Let's be really clear about that."

He encouraged people "to look at this objectively and focus on what the police are saying".

"They are dealing in facts. They are dealing in actual reported incidents of crime, rather than just the rumour mill."

Hipkins also said any community checkpoints should be set up in conjunction with police.

"People don't have an ability to just set up a checkpoint willy-nilly."

National, ACT, and NZ First have also all taken aim at Police Minister Stuart Nash for his attitude towards the law and order problem. 

The minister said "now is not the time" for gangs to create havoc, but has since clarified to Newstalk ZB, "there is no right time".

He told Newshub on Sunday: "Get your bloody patches off, go and get a whole lot of wheelbarrows and shovels and start helping people instead of adding to already super-high levels of stress."

Mark Mitchell, National's police spokesperson, called Nash's comments "ridiculous and embarrassing for Labour". 

"Police Minister Stuart Nash says gangs are causing chaos in cyclone-affected regions, but his response is to go on the radio and ask nicely for the gangs to stop."

Mitchell said National's policy to crack down on gangs included prohibiting them from gathering in public and banning gang patches. 

Police Minister Stuart Nash.
Police Minister Stuart Nash. Photo credit: Newshub.

Nash needs to "stop treating gang leaders like equals", Seymour said. 

"They are not legitimate organisations. Instead of asking the gangs to be good, the message should be that anyone who loots will be locked up, including the entire Mongrel Mob if necessary," Seymour said. 

"Police Commissioner Andy Coster showed incredible insensitivity when he told media this morning that 'dishonesty offences are down overall'.

"Crime hits people that much harder when they've lost their homes, they're missing relatives, they've been through a trauma and are in shock in the midst of a disaster. People don't need statistics; they need to see a Police and military presence."

Peters said: "The Government needs to act now before someone is killed - having the Ministers of Police and Justice on camera telling the gangs to just 'cut it out' and 'pull your heads in' shows a highly concerning lack of understanding."

"The first responsibility of any Government is to ensure people's safety and security - the people of Hawke's Bay shouldn't have to put up with guns being pointed at road workers, or people being threatened and robbed for food and petrol."

Police on Sunday said that, since Tuesday, police have conducted more than 2000 reassurance jobs across the Eastern District, including road and foot patrols and road safety checks. 

Commissioner Coster told AM on Monday morning that family harm is up 60 percent since Cyclone Gabrielle hit. 

"If anyone is feeling unsafe and needs help they just need to contact us. Our team will make whatever arrangements are necessary to keep people safe," he said. 

"Clearly, there's been a wide range of impacts and all of the welfare services are extended in different ways but there's nothing more important than people's safety from a feeling like family harm."