Police review into Christchurch mosque attacks response revealed

The police response on the day of the Christchurch mosque attacks was “exemplary”, but some changes could help improve future responses, an independent review has found.

The deployment of staff after a gunman opened fire at two city mosques on March 15 last year, killing 51 Muslims during Friday prayer, was “rapid and effective”, the report out today concluded.

“Police staff acted as quickly as humanly possible given the rapidly unfolding nature of the event, and the information available to us in that very brief period of time,” it found.

Six minutes after the first 111 calls and seven minutes after the first shots were fired, the first police officers arrived at the Masjid Al Noor on Deans Ave.

They did not know how many gunmen there might be, or if any were still at the scene.

Ten minutes later, Senior Constable Jim Manning and Senior Constable Scott Carmody were driving on Brougham St when they saw a car with a plate that matched the one on the alleged gunman’s livestream.

They rammed the car off the road and dragged the alleged gunman from the car.

The arrest took place about 18 minutes after the first shots were fired.

“Operation Deans'” – the police’s response to the terrorist attack – was its largest, most complex response operation to date.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said the review was undertaken in light of the magnitude and sensitivity of the operation.

However, the Commissioner also noted that affected families had concerns about aspects of the response on the day which they had expressed to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attacks.

“We want to be as open and transparent as possible about how we conducted our operation. We haven’t released the review until now out of respect for the justice process and because we didn’t want to pre-empt the findings of the Royal Commission.”

The report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the mosque attacks, which was released yesterday, revealed “insufficient attention” was given by New Zealand Police over whether one of the killer’s gaming friends – who knew about his racist and Islamophobic views – was an appropriate referee for his firearms licence.

The independent inquiry also concluded that police’s administration of the firearms licensing system “did not meet required standards”.

Coster yesterday “unreservedly apologised” for the firearms licence failures while the Royal Commission recommended an overhaul of the “old-fashioned”, inefficient paper-heavy firearms licensing system.

Police say they intend to engage with members of the Muslim community on how to implement the recommendations.

The review, undertaken by an independent panel, considered the police operational response in the 48 hours following the attack.

The panel consisted of Nick Kaldas, retired Deputy Police Commissioner, New South Wales Police; Michael Heron, QC, former Solicitor General; and Jeff Ashford, Director Centre for Lifelong Learning, Victoria University of Wellington.

The authors concluded that police’s response on the day was exemplary, however there were improvements that could be made to processes and systems for future operational responses.

It was clear that within five minutes of the first call to police at 1.41pm that they were reacting to a “very major incident”, the 49-page report states.

The influx of information to the Southern Communications police unit was “unexpected and extreme”.

Reports of multiple shooters at multiple locations led to confusion.

Calls made to 111 described “shots fired at hospital”, leading to the misapprehension that there were multiple shooters across the city. Officers were rushed to the hospital.

“This misunderstanding distracted from the true incident locations and supported conclusions that there were multiple shooters,” the report said.

Police radio traffic was overwhelming and some field units failed to adhere to radio protocol in the heat of the moment, it was found.

That day, a sniper training course was being held in Christchurch with specialists not only from New Zealand Police but from NZ Defence Force and overseas staff from Hong Kong and Australia.

The highly-trained staff deployed themselves to the incident.

Today, the report confirms that their actions were justified under the Crimes Act 1961.

Some of the non-New Zealand Police staff carried weapons for their own protection but their primary activities as first responders to the Deans Ave scene were administering advanced first aid to victims and “directly saved lives”.

However, since they didn’t have police uniforms on, their identification caused “confusion”, particularly for the public.

“Police agree that in future operations, clear [New Zealand Police] identification for all deployed staff is essential, or buddying with NZP-identified staff,” the report says.

Police staff agreed that lockdowns of schools within the Christchurch area was “sensible, particularly given the live possibility of multiple offenders”, but the report found few schools had pre-arranged or well-understood safety plans.
Manning and Carmody – who have already been recognised with bravery awards – are also praised in the report for showing “remarkable bravery, wisdom, and teamwork which reflected their collective experience and confidence as police officers”.

The reporter writers also noted the “significant comment” around the focused, calm, and professional attitude of communications staff which had “a profound effect on field staff, encouraging them to likewise retain their professionalism in the face of an extreme incident”.

“Similar observations from Canterbury District identified that calm leadership and a clear communication of purpose ensured that the DCC stayed on-mission and focused,” the report says.

Although there were criticisms of how long it took for victims to be identified and released to families for burial – especially where Islamic lore dictates burials to be done within 24 hours – the report found that the speed of the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) process was “remarkable”.

“All bodies were removed from crime scenes by Saturday night, which also allowed the swift restoration of the two mosques to begin,” the report says.

“The rapid achievement of this first step was due to the early access given to DVI staff, and the CCTV and livestream footage available from inside the mosques.

“By international standards, the DVI process was very quick.”

However, better use of technology was recommended to both to aid early identification of the deceased and to enable more automation and transparency of the DVI process.

And the report also says consideration should be given to allowing members of the public to send text messages to the emergency number rather than ringing – something that is currently permitted for the hearing impaired if they register to use the service.

“In times of an active shooter attack, this could be crucial, as victims did not want to make noise while hidden,” the report found.

“The demand for information should not be underestimated, and practical approaches should be developed to deliver that information.”

Family Liaison Officers and Ethnic Liaison Officers were mobilised early in the crisis to support the community.

The authors found that their overall response to families was of a good standard, but noted they were understaffed to respond to the volume and urgency of information requests of families and communities.

“We know this was a deeply distressing time for all the families involved,” Coster said.

“We were conscious of these sensitivities and we worked hard to address them.”

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