Parliament protest review: Watchdog debunks 'misunderstandings', addresses 'high-profile incidents'

The police watchdog has addressed several "high-profile incidents" between protesters and officers at the Parliament occupation last year.

On Thursday, the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) released its review of police actions during the Parliament protest in February-March last year. Overall, it found police conducted themselves well but did find some isolated incidents of potential excessive force.

The IPCA received 1905 complaints about police actions, with the majority coming from people who weren't at the protest and referring to the same 28 incidents.

"We received hundreds of photographs, videos and links to videos on Facebook, YouTube, Rumble, Telegram, mainstream media posts and live feeds, as well as alternative media channels, influencers and platforms such as Counterspin media," the IPCA said.

For eight of these 28 incidents, the individual involved in the incident complained directly to the IPCA. Each matter has been investigated by the watchdog and the outcomes will be reported to each complainant.

These complaints included a police officer allegedly placing their full weight on a man's head. The officer also allegedly used the same tactic on a young person. 

It's also alleged police eye-gouged a man, police fractured a woman's sternum and an officer struck a woman in the face with a shield breaking several of her teeth. 

"After reviewing the relevant video footage, we determined that the other high-profile incidents did not warrant specific investigations," the watchdog said.

"This was because they either were not fully or accurately depicted in photos or footage originally supplied to us, were not sufficiently serious and/or involved police tactics that were addressed in the wider report."

One example highlighted by the IPCA was that of police officers allegedly ripping the clothes off a protester, dragging her out of the crowd by her hair, holding her on the ground and then smothering her face with a blanket so that she could not breathe. This was the subject of 432 complaints. 

"In fact, our enquiries, which included speaking to the woman herself, identified that she had deliberately stripped down to her underwear and covered her body in coconut oil to make it difficult for police to grab her," the report said. 

"The officer consequently lost her grip on the woman as she attempted to arrest her and was only able to regain control of her by grabbing the woman's hair. Police officers placed a blanket over the woman's torso to ensure her dignity."

Other incidents assessed as not requiring specific investigation because of the reasons stated above include:

  • a protester who appeared to have been deliberately tripped over by an officer as she was being escorted to an area where protesters were being processed following their arrests
  • a protester who was allegedly punched while on his hands and knees
  • a police officer saying to a protester: "You should be real proud of your fellow protesters. You've got religious nutcases, gang members, the great unwashed and the unemployed"
  • the arrest of an identified individual for trespass following his attempt to enter Parliament buildings to make a citizen's arrest of the then Minister of Health for alleged criminal behaviour relating to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine
  • police officers pulling, dragging, restraining or plucking protesters from the crowd
  • the force used by police officers when clearing Parliament grounds and the surrounding streets
  • police officers using fire hoses and throwing bricks at protesters. 

The wider report found the riot of March 2 featured "substantial and sustained violence" aimed at officers, 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.

The report also addresses some "misunderstandings or misconceptions" about police powers and actions.

After reviewing 320 hours of footage, the IPCA said it was satisfied police:

  • did not use tear gas during the protest (on 2 March, police used larger pepper spray canisters, which protesters may have mistaken for tear gas)
  • deployed only serving members of the New Zealand Police during the protest
  • carried out multiple operational tasks (such as placement or repositioning of bollards) in the early hours of the morning to ensure minimal interference from protesters and reduce disruption to the general public and traffic, and not as a tactic to wear down the protesters
  • are lawfully able to use reasonable and proportionate force in instances where peaceful protesters are obstructing police from carrying out their duties
  • did not "stage" an incident on February 22, when a driver threatened to reverse into a line of police staff in his vehicle. It is also evident protesters did not attempt to stop the driver of the vehicle that threatened to reverse into the police on March 2
  • did not use plainclothes officers, authorise, arrange or pay for anyone else to agitate protesters
  • did not intentionally cover up police identification numbers on their uniforms with tape to prevent identification. While many officers placed coloured tape on their vests to identify their membership in a particular team, epaulettes with officers' identification numbers are worn on their shoulders and were visible
  • used Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) but neither the LRADs nor any other device, emitted frequencies that burned people's skin and made them sick
  • did not wear "knuckle-duster" gloves. Members of the Police Support Unit wore "hatch reactor Gloves", which resemble motorcycle gloves and are part of their approved kit
  • did not spray themselves with pepper spray. Three officers were treated by paramedics after an unknown substance was thrown at them. Protesters threw faeces at Police officers on February and 22 and March 22. Protesters also threw paint at police officers
  • were not responsible for starting the fires on Parliament grounds on March 2.

The IPCA also addressed two images submitted to support allegations police used excessive force.

"In fact, the authority has established from reverse image searches that both photographs have been in circulation on the internet for the past three years. 

"The image of the child is understood to have been taken at a protest in Seattle in 2020. The image of the woman is associated with posts online that discuss the use of sponge rounds at protests in the United States and Chile."

Parliament protest review: Watchdog debunks 'misunderstandings', addresses 'high-profile incidents'
Photo credit: IPCA

Nineteen complaints have required a specific investigation or further enquiries, the IPCA said. Preliminary findings show police actions were unjustified in eight of the 19 complaints.