Parliament protest police report: 'Isolated incidents of potential excessive force', but officers showed 'remarkable restraint' in face of violence

Police officers on the frontline of the occupation of Parliament last year faced "extreme provocation", "violent behaviour" and a level of disorder rarely seen in New Zealand, but showed professionalism and "remarkable restraint", the independent watchdog has found.

The highly-anticipated review of police actions during the three-week protest in February-March 2022 finds officers served the public "well". They've been commended for ending the illegal occupation "with as few injuries and as little damage to property at they did".

The riot of March 2 featured "substantial and sustained violence" aimed at officers, the report said, with police targeted with a Molotov cocktail, bricks, bottles, fireworks and more. While there were "isolated incidents of potentially excessive reactive force by police", most actions were professional and all defensive tactics were justified, the report found.

However, the watchdog said there were deficiencies in the overall response to the occupation, including issues with some arrest procedures and the recording of evidence, a failure to comply with some legal requirements around the treatment of detainees, a lack of inventory of hard armour and no detailed plans to deal with some situations.

One striking finding is some of New Zealand's current laws for mass public disorder situations are not fit for purpose, including laws around trespass.

Multiple major recommendations have been made, including that police propose to the Government a multi-agency review of the laws governing a public order event such as this, the urgent purchase of more hard body armour and new procedures for the policing of Parliament. 

The Police Commissioner said work is already underway on areas of improvement but believes health and safety were "at the forefront of our minds before, during and after the operation", calling it "one of the most significant policing challenges in decades". 

Released publicly on Thursday morning, the report by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) follows more than 1900 complaints about how cops handled the occupation. 

There were allegations police used excessive force on protesters, demonstrators were unlawfully trespassed and officers deliberately agitated protesters.

Notably, 85 percent of the complaints were from individuals who weren't at the protest. Nineteen complaints are now the subject of individual investigations by the IPCA, with preliminary findings showing police were unjustified in eight of those complaints. 

The report is intended to provide an independent assessment of the information police had in the lead-up to the occupation, the decisions taken throughout it, the tactics used and whether the response was lawful, proportionate and appropriate.

A summary of the 225-page report said police served New Zealand "well in dealing with this difficult and complex set of events".

"Frontline officers faced extreme provocation and violent behaviour from some of the protesters, and a level of public disorder rarely seen in New Zealand," IPCA chair Judge Colin Doherty wrote.

"In the face of that, almost all police officers involved exercised professionalism and restraint in their dealings with the protesters. It is commendable that police were able to end the illegal occupation of Parliament grounds on March 2, 2022, with as few injuries and as little damage to property as they did."

Convoy and early days of occupation

The occupation of Parliament took place last year between February 8 and March 2. At its peak, there were an estimated 3000 protesters present but, over the course of the occupation, the number ranged generally between 200 and 500 in the daytime and fewer at night.

Primarily a protest against COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates, over its length, the demonstration also attracted many anti-government figures vocal in opposition towards everything from communism to Three Waters. 

Police first received intelligence earlier on February 1 there was a plan for convoys of vehicles to head to Wellington from across the country. This came as so-called freedom convoys took place in Australia and Canada against COVID-19 restrictions. 

Over the following days, police received further information indicating the potential that Parliament could be occupied following the convoy.

The IPCA found police intelligence staff provided "very good information" about the developing situations to police decision-makers, but the risks posed by the event, especially in light of what was happening overseas, weren't sufficiently considered. 

Police should have consulted Wellington City Council well in advance of the convoy arriving about whether there was a need for a traffic management plan and prepared a detailed operation plan, the IPCA found.

One of the main issues during the occupation was occupiers' vehicles blocking streets around Parliament. For weeks, some of Wellington's main thoroughfares were closed, severely impacting residents and local businesses. 

The roads around Parliament were blocked.
The roads around Parliament were blocked. Photo credit: Reuters.

The report, however, found consultation may not have resulted in any additional action beyond what was taken. For example, it may not have necessarily led to the roads around Parliament being closed or the protesters' path changing.

"We also recognise that, if police had acted to restrict or prevent the possible occupation prematurely or unnecessarily, they would have been criticised for that," the report said.

Once the protesters arrived at Parliament, many decided they would stay - erecting tents, digging trenches and defying calls by police and the Speaker - who controls the Parliament grounds - to leave.

The occupation spread out beyond Parliament's front grounds to the Victoria University Pipitea campus and surrounding roads. Individuals walking by were heckled by some protesters, while politicians were the target of abuse.

"Once the protesters had arrived in substantial numbers on February 8, there was nothing police could realistically do to prevent the occupation," the report said, citing the lack of staff capacity.

Police also initially didn't have the power to remove protesters. While they were told on the night of February 8 to leave, "the occupation of Parliament grounds only became unlawful after the Speaker closed the grounds and determined that the protesters were trespassers", the report said.

That didn't happen until the morning of February 10, it said.

February 10 attempt to clear Parliament

Police decided on the night of February 9 to take action the following day. It was the February 10 operation that police received the greatest number of complaints about.

The report said the decision to conduct an operation was made by the Wellington District Commander after Police Commissioner Andrew Coster "communicated his view that this should occur".

That came about after a discussion with the Speaker, the Deputy Prime Minister - who was also the local MP - and the Attorney General. But the watchdog said the Commissioner came to his own independent view.

"We are satisfied that there was no undue political interference," the report said.

During the attempt to clear the grounds of Parliament on February 10, 108 people were arrested. But the police weren't successful and pulled back at 4:40pm.

The IPCA is critical of the police response on this day, finding a lack of preparation in terms of planning, staffing and equipment, and no clear communication to staff about what was intended.

It said the "vast majority of police officers we interviewed said that the operation was bound not to achieve its objectives. We agree success was unlikely".

Police also initially failed to provide all protesters with warnings required under the Trespass Act 1980 that they needed to leave the grounds, the report said.

Tents were erected on the front grounds of Parliament.
Tents were erected on the front grounds of Parliament. Photo credit: Newshub.

While officers used a "generally reasonable" degree of force to arrest people, the arrest process and the recording of evidence were deemed "deficient" by the IPCA - with 70 charges against protesters having to later be withdrawn due to this reason.

Officers were also unprepared to physically deal with so many arrests and people in custody, meaning they were unable to comply with all legal and policy requirements relating to the treatment of detainees in custody, the IPCA found.

The authority believes the decision to end the operation should have been made earlier on February 10 "when it was apparent that it would not achieve its objective".

"Although the operation was unlikely to succeed, that does not mean it was unjustified," a summary of the report said. 

"It demonstrated that police were confronted with a difficult situation and that easy options to end the occupation at that time were not available. It, therefore, bought police time to plan for the eventual (and successful) operation on March 2."

The report said the "resolve of the protesters was perhaps greater than anticipated".

"Without the degree of resistance police encountered there was at least some prospect of success."

The IPCA also noted that at that point there was growing "consternation and frustration" among some in the local community towards the perception that "police were being too passive and ineffective".

"Without some action, that frustration at the perceived lack of an effective police response would only have grown."

The deficiencies were also "driven by the speed with which the operation was mounted". 

"It was hurriedly implemented by an under-resourced unit, thus diminishing its overall prospects of success. A 24-hour delay until February 11 might have been preferable."

Policing the protest

The approach taken by police following February 10 was the right one, the IPCA said. The focus was on containing the occupation and maintaining law and order while also planning for a larger operation to bring the protest to an end.

Preventing the protesters from breaching Parliament was also viewed as "the highest priority", the report said.

"It was a major logistical exercise to bring the occupation to an end and police had neither the capacity nor the capability to do that quickly; they needed time to plan and to marshal the required resources."

The report notes that throughout the response police were also having to deal with the demands of day-to-day policing as well as shortages caused by COVID-19. The occupation happened as the Omicron wave hit New Zealand and there were infections at the protest. 

At the start of the month, police had been anticipating at least 20 percent absenteeism across their workforce.

Parliament protest police report: 'Isolated incidents of potential excessive force', but officers showed 'remarkable restraint' in face of violence
Photo credit: IPCA.

A national operation was established at Police National Headquarters on February 15, but the report found a "more flexible process" for providing support should have been in place.

With vehicles still blocking streets, there were complaints from residents about the impact on locals. The report said police did work on a strategy to remove the vehicles, but police didn't have the capacity to do this on their own and attempts to obtain support from tow operators were mostly unsuccessful. 

"They managed to tow only a few vehicles over this period as a result. But police did successfully use concrete bollards to contain and then shrink the occupation footprint, which contributed to the success of the March 2 operation."

Ticketing some of the vehicles' owners also wasn't effective as the fines "were swiftly paid by those funding the protest". 

IPCA also suggested police should have developed a clear strategy to communicate and engage with the protesters. 

"This was challenging because there was no single consistent leader/spokesperson for all the various factions, and it was unclear how much influence the leaders they spoke to had within the group as a whole. The protesters also wanted to speak directly to the government, rather than police."

The report said the Advanced Police Negotiation Team (APNT) should have been supported to lead engagement with protest groups.

"Instead, several senior police staff tried to engage with various people, which undermined the APNT's role and caused confusion (in both police and protester ranks) about who from within police was leading the engagement."

The riot 

On March 2, the occupation came to a fiery end. Police formed a skirmish line and pushed into Parliament's grounds but faced resistance from the protesters. 

The report said the operation was originally scheduled for March 3 but was brought forward to maximise the number of staff available. The number of staff "was all that was realistically available" and "significantly fewer than requested by those planning the operation". 

Overall, 600 officers became involved.

It was also initially planned for two days but, once the area outside Parliament's library was cleared, the decision was made to proceed. 

The watchdog found this was reasonable as a delay would have led to a reduction in staff and equipment levels, given protesters more time to strategise and "bolster their resistance", and it hadn't been decided how police would the hold grounds they had reclaimed overnight.

"In order to give effect to this decision, police progressively forced protesters down Molesworth St and the Parliament lawn towards the bottom gates. During this manoeuvre, they encountered strong resistance from the protest group and some protesters started fires among the tents."

The report said police faced "substantial and sustained" violence.

"This included throwing a Molotov cocktail, bricks, paving stones, fireworks, poles, bottles, a knife and other projectiles. By late in the day the protest had degenerated into a riot. 

"At about 6pm a car was used to attack a police line on Lambton Quay."

A large number of police officers were required to help with the response.
A large number of police officers were required to help with the response. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The IPCA said that in the face of this "extreme provocation", officers "generally acted professionally and with remarkable restrain". 

However, it did note there were some "isolated incidents of potentially excessive reactive force by police".

Tactics used by police in self-defence and in the defence of others on March 2 were justified by the circumstances, the watchdog said, including the use of skirmish lines, pushing and striking, pepper spray, batons and other weapons of opportunity (like fire extinguishers). While firearms weren't used by police on the day, officers were justified to be carrying them, it said.

The use of long-range audio devices (LRADs) came to some attention during the protest and in its immediate aftermath. These were used by police to warn people they could be arrested if they didn't leave.

While "these devices can cause pain and hearing loss if used improperly", they were used when there was a threat of serious injury and therefore were justified, the watchdog found.

Despite police actions being justified, the report identified a number of deficiencies with the response on the day, including the use of hard body armour and the lack of sufficient inventory of it.

"While police's decision not to allow officers to wear hard body armour from the start of the operation was reasonably open to them, it should have been accompanied by a communication to staff about when and how that decision could be varied in the light of changing circumstances," the IPCA said.

"Because it was not, a number of officers were exposed to unnecessary risk when objects were thrown at them. By at least mid-morning, all officers should have had access to the protective equipment to the extent it was available."

The report said there was a concern that wearing hard body armour and using long batons at the start of the day "would provoke protesters and engender confrontation and violence".

"Over the course of the day, some officers had to leave the skirmish lines to put on hard body armour due to the violence they encountered. There was also not enough hard body armour available for all officers."

Another focus of the IPCA was on the support provided to district police by newly graduated officers and recruits who hadn't yet graduated from police college.

The watchdog found newly graduated officers "had not been adequately prepared or equipped for a role in the operation", while it was "undesirable" for recruits to attend. It said the need for recruits to help secure ground reclaimed by police "arose because of inadequate prior planning".

Issues identified on February 10 relating to the collection of evidence also persisted, the report said. This again led to some charges laid with respect to protester actions on March 2 being withdrawn. 

However, police had identified problems with their mass arrest process and "tried to address them". 

The IPCA also found while police had a vehicle extraction plan for following the occupation, it lacked a detailed plan for dealing with property left behind on Parliament's grounds and surrounding streets and properties.


The report includes 14 main recommendations for police. The authority believes these will "help police improve public order policing".

One of the most significant is the suggestion of a review of New Zealand's laws relating to events like the Parliament protest.

"[Police should] propose to Government that there be a multi-agency review of the law governing a public order event such as this," the report said.

This is because the IPCA found the occupation "exposed the ineffectiveness of some current laws".

"The authority identified a number of areas where the current law is not fit-for-purpose for the mass public disorder situation that confronted police on February 10 and on March 2."

These relate to the law of trespass, the law governing how arrests may be lawfully effected and the law governing how property left behind by trespassers should be handled.

Other recommendations include police developing their public order policing operating model "as a matter of some priority", developing standard operating procedures for the parliamentary precinct, "urgently" acquiring extra public order policing equipment" and developing guidelines using recruits during major or high-risk operations.

In a written response to the IPCA report, Coster said he was pleased police had been found to be "professional and restrained despite facing an exceptionally challenging, provocative and, sometimes, very volatile environment".

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The Police Commissioner said he was "immensely proud of the work" of his officers.

"Our people showed great courage and professionalism, given what they faced on that final day," Coster said.

"This was an unprecedented event and it will be regarded as one of the most significant policing challenges in decades. Despite that, the authority found we did many things right, particularly the overall use of force being appropriate in the circumstances."

Coster said an internal review by police had found many of the same areas of improvement.

A significant amount of work has already been completed, he said, such as ordering more equipment, providing more training to staff and reviewing public order policing. 

"The review into public order policing will investigate issues of training and equipment. More protective equipment has been sourced already to create a centralised store. 

"Districts have also reviewed their own supplies.

"We agree that, ideally, more officers would have been fully equipped with specialist protective equipment. At the time of the operation we had exhausted all options to do so, including utilising partner agencies."

He said officers were deployed in a "careful and deliberate manner" to maximise safety, with the most equipped at the front of skirmish lines and those less equipped deployed to lower risk activities as much as possible. 

"As protestors became increasingly violent toward staff on March 2, some staff became exposed to greater risk. Officers took action to mitigate these risks, which included deploying sponge rounds, withdrawing and other tactics.

"Extensive effort went into staff safety, to the extent possible in this context, and I am confident that health and safety were at the forefront of our minds before, during and after the operation."

Other recommendations in the report will be incorporated into the police's work programme. Coster said police are committed to ensuring proper follow-through and will track the implementation of recommendations.