Parliament protest: Watchdog, Chris Hipkins satisfied no political interference in response, but cops had concerns

The Prime Minister is satisfied there wasn't any political influence over the police's response to the Parliamentary protest, a conclusion shared by the independent watchdog.

But the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) report shows "many" officers interviewed did believe one operation "had resulted from strong political pressure".

The 225-page report, released on Thursday morning, is a review of police actions during the protest at Parliament in February-March 2022. 

It includes an assessment of whether the decision to launch an operation to attempt to clear Parliament's grounds on February 10 was politically influenced.

Ultimately, it was found there was no "undue political interference".

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on Thursday said he was confident there was no case of political influence and the report bears that out.

"It found that there was no improper political pressure exerted on the Police Commissioner," Hipkins said.

"That was ultimately a meeting of the Speaker. There were some Ministers who were in the room but it was ultimately the Speaker instigating that meeting. 

"He is the occupier of Parliament. He is the legal occupier, or was, the legal occupier of Parliament. If you have someone setting up camp on your front lawn, it's appropriate for the person concerned or the entity concerned to be communicating with the police about that."

The report describes on the night of February 9, then-Deputy Prime Minister (in his role as the Wellington Central MP) and the Attorney General visited then-Speaker Trevor Mallard's office "to discuss developments and offer support".

"Both were concerned at the rapid growth in the size of the protest group, the aggressive nature of some of their behaviour and the appearance of tents and other structures that suggested an organised occupation," the report said.

After a discussion, the Speaker rang the Assistant Commissioner to ascertain police intentions. During that conversation "he communicated his view police should remove protesters from Parliament grounds".

The issue was kicked up the ladder to Police Commissioner Andrew Coster, who later had a conversation with the Speaker, Deputy Prime Minister and Attorney General.

"Following that conversation, the Commissioner rang the Assistant Commissioner and made clear his expectation that there was to be a police operation on the following day to clear Parliament grounds of protesters," the report said.

"The Assistant Commissioner told us he regarded this expectation as an order from the Commissioner, and communicated it to the Local Controller. However, when we interviewed the Local Controller, he was adamant that the final decision was still his."

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo credit: Newshub.

The report said the Local Controller could have decided to not proceed if it was operationally impracticable to do so, "but otherwise the Commissioner's expectations would be adhered to".

The watchdog highlighted "many" officers in the Wellington District that it spoke to, along with some from elsewhere, were "firmly of the view the decision to conduct a police operation on 10 February had resulted from strong political pressure".

"Some inferred that this pressure crossed the line and intruded on police operational independence," the report said.

"The frontline staff we interviewed were overwhelmingly of the view that it was obvious to them from early in the operation (although not necessarily beforehand) that it would not succeed. We were repeatedly told that the direction to proceed with the operation would not have been given unless police had succumbed to the political pressure."

The IPCA said it would be "most concerned" if there had been inappropriate political interference given the need for police to be independent from politicians. 

As a result, it "carefully questioned all of those involved" and is "satisfied there was nothing inappropriate in the interaction between the Commissioner and either the Speaker or other Ministers". 

"There is no detailed record of the conversation that occurred. However, all of those present said there was no express or implied direction to the Commissioner to take a specific course of action. They acknowledge clear and strong views were expressed, and there was a high level of frustration at the Police's failure to intervene earlier. However, that does not in itself constitute undue political interference."

The watchdog said the Speaker was entitled to seek police assistance and express his view as to what they needed to do "like any other occupier whose premises are unlawfully occupied by others".

"The Commissioner was equally entitled to agree with or reject his view, and in making that determination was under a duty to consider not only the rights of the Speaker as occupier but the wider interests of the community as well as the rights of the protesters," the report said.

"The assertion of a strong view by the Speaker, or for that matter by any other Minister, will only cross the bounds of propriety if accompanied by some express or implied inducement or threat of disadvantage. There is nothing to suggest anything of that nature."

The Police Commissioner is described in the report as saying the conversation with the Speaker and ministers was "uncomfortable", but he was "adamant he reached his own independent judgement". 

"He told us he did not agree the operation was doomed from the outset. He pointed out it was a common police strategy to break up unlawful protests by selectively arresting ringleaders and those actively resisting, and police experience is this is often successful in encouraging others to leave."

But Coster told the watchdog on February 10 police "under-estimated the determination and organisation" of the protesters and the tactics they used. This view was shared by another senior officer.

The IPCA said it doesn't necessarily agree the operation had a reasonable prospect of success given the extent of the protesters' organisation was evident and police had limited capacity.

"Nevertheless, we reiterate our investigation did not uncover any undue political influence at any stage of the occupation. In fact, what we did find was explicit recognition of the need to respect the constitutional divide between politics and police operations."

An example of this identified by the watchdog was a letter from the Attorney General to the then-Minister of Police in February last year stating ministers could seek reassurance their concerns had been understood and resourcing of police was adequate.

But "decisions on what law enforcement resources are to be deployed in, and on what reasonable policy directions are to be made, are for the Commissioner. So too is the strategy in policing any particular situation," the letter apparently said. 

National's police spokesperson Mark Mitchell said questions remained after the report. 

"Why did the Police Commissioner send a message to his senior team that a response to the protest was expected the next day, immediately following an 'uncomfortable discussion' he had with the Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney General and Speaker of the House on 9 March?

"Why did the tactics and operation suddenly have a change in direction following this meeting?

"Why were no records kept or available to the IPCA detailing the conversations between Ministers and senior Police officers? Many frontline Police officers felt political pressure had been used to try to stop a protest that was embarrassing to the Government."