New Zealand police have shot more people in the past 10 years than the previous 40. They shoot almost as many as their counterparts in the UK, which has 13 times the population.
Police bosses deny there’s a problem, but former officers, lawyers and families are calling for a radical rethink of how such cases are handled to stem the bloodshed. Tony Wall and Catrin Owen report.
It all happened so fast.
David Cerven called 111 and asked police to come to Myers Park in central Auckland. He said he had a weapon.
Within two minutes of armed officers arriving, bullets were raining down on him. He didn't have a gun - in fact, he had no weapon.
He pretended to have one though, pulling his empty hands out of his pockets and pointing them in a firing stance like an outlaw in a bad movie.
One officer opened up with his M4 rifle, firing five times. Another took aim with his Glock pistol, letting off three rounds. It was dark and their shooting was inaccurate - only two bullets from the rifle found their target and the Glock's missed altogether.
Cerven was struck in his jaw and stomach and the 21-year-old from Slovakia was pronounced dead seven minutes after an ambulance arrived.
It was August, 2015 and the top kickboxer had only been in the country five months. Desperate for money to pay back a loan his mother had taken out to pay for his knee surgery, he robbed two liquor stores and a dairy armed with a knife.
The day he died, police had issued a photo, urging Cerven to turn himself in. His final, emotional text to his girlfriend, less than an hour before he was shot, read:
The scene of the fatal police shooting in Myers Park, Auckland.
Experts suggest the case highlights a problem - that our cops are too quick to rush in, creating stand-offs that too often result in gunfire. That they are, in effect, trigger happy.
Some question whether training is up to scratch and say the fact that cases seldom, if ever, go to court only encourages officers to use their guns rather than other tactical options. And they are critical of the work done by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA), saying its inquiries lack depth and independence.
Barrister Nicholas Taylor, a specialist in firearms law, says the officers who shot at Cerven should have been prosecuted.
"It was chaotic, disorganised," he says.
"There was a cowboyish attitude, the talk of 'tooling up', the spraying of rounds.
"They just Rambo-like pulled the trigger ... and hoped they'd hit something."
Inquiries found the two officers hadn't properly assessed the situation to determine if there was any risk to the public. They hadn't advised the communications centre of their intended approach, meaning the four unarmed staff already there were not aware of their plan and it was not approved by the dispatcher in charge.
The IPCA, as it does in virtually all such cases, found the shooting "justified" because the officers believed Cerven had a gun and feared for their lives. But it also found that they caused Cerven's response by their own actions.
There was a range of other options they could have taken, the authority found, including further negotiations, delaying the arrest until the park could be properly cordoned and finding out if the Armed Offenders Squad was coming.
The officers faced no criminal charges, which is not surprising - police have never charged an officer involved in a fatal shooting in modern times - and no disciplinary action.
Only Senior Constable Keith Abbott has faced a murder charge, and that was brought by the family of Steven Wallace, whom he shot in the street in Waitara after a window smashing spree in 2000. Abbott was acquitted.
A coroner's inquest into Cerven's death will resume in December. Police are represented by two lawyers but no-one is appearing for Cerven's family. Taylor says he will represent the family for free if he can get hold of them.
Police reject the criticism of their handling of the incident, saying they were keeping themselves and the community safe.
Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers, who was Auckland district commander at the time, says the officers acted according to their training in what was a "highly volatile, challenging and fast-moving situation" and he fully supports their decisions.
"My staff made what will probably be the biggest decision they will make in their careers. It was a decision that in reality no officer wants to have to make ... the emotional impacts do not simply come and go - they last forever."
Cerven’s friends and family remain mystified by what happened.
A Slovakian friend of Cerven's, Ejlo Slamka, says Cerven's mother, Maria, who is a teacher, still finds it very hard to speak about his death. Another friend, David Sivak, says the shooting has mystified everyone.
"I never saw that he was in depression so that's why ... his passing shocked me, nobody understood that. David never had and never used a gun and I think that police didn't have to shoot him...they should act differently."
Cerven was one of 16 people fatally shot by police in the past 10 years.
Christopher Wayne Brown, 44, died on the way to Wellington Hospital in February 2017 after he was shot by police in Porirua. He had threatened them with a machete after a domestic incident.
Savey Kevin Sous, 32, was shot and killed by the Armed Offenders Squad after he presented a gun at police attending a domestic violence incident in Whanganui in January 2017.
Shargin Stephens, 35, was fatally shot after pepper spray and a taser were ineffective in stopping him from threatening people with a slasher in Rotorua in July 2016. He died in hospital more than a week later.
Nick Marshall, 36, was shot five times by AOS officers during a raid on his Hamilton warehouse in July 2016. He had aimed a firearm at them.
Michael Taylor, 57, was shot dead by police responding to a call from his partner near Paeroa, Waikato in June 2016. He had thrown a machete at the police car.
Pera Smiler, 25, was shot dead by police in Main St, Upper Hutt, after he fired a high-powered rifle inside a McDonald’s restaurant, then shot at responding police outside in September 2015.
David Cerven, 21, was shot and killed by police in August 2015 when he claimed to have a gun as he advanced on police in Auckland’s Myers Park. He had no weapon.
Vaughan William John Te Moananui, 33, was shot dead by police in Thames after a confrontation in May 2015 during which he reportedly brandished a rifle.
Caleb Dean Henry, 20, was shot by the AOS on Auckland’s northern motorway after a chase from Waikato in July 2013. Henry had done a home invasion near Opotiki and was firing at officers.
Adam Te Rata Charles Morehu, 33, was fatally shot after he fired at police while escaping from a burglary at New Plymouth Golf Club in June 2013.
Anthony Ratahi, 46, was shot dead by police after a stand-off when he took his former girlfriend hostage with a gun for 12 hours at the Headlands Hotel, Opunake in July 2011.
Lachan Paul Ngamoki Kelly-Tumarae, 19, was shot after a car chase near Hastings in March 2011. An officer fired 14 shots at him, only four of which hit.
Shayne Richard Sime, 42, who used a wheelchair, was shot and killed by police after a siege during which he had shot more than 100 rounds at neighbouring houses from his front door in Burnside, Christchurch in June 2009.
Halatau Naitoko, 17, a courier driver, was accidentally shot dead by police on Auckland’s Northwestern motorway during their pursuit of Stephen McDonald in January 2009.
Lee Jane Mettam, 37, was shot by an AOS member after she held up a Vodafone shop in Whangarei and pointed an airgun at police when she left the store in October 2008.
Stephen Bellingham, 37, was shot dead by a police officer in Christchurch in September 2007 after smashing cars with a claw hammer.
The idea that our police are unarmed is, of course, a myth.
Where they once had to get permission to sign out a firearm from the station, all frontline staff now have a Glock and an M4 in the boot of their car and can strap them on at their own discretion.
Despite the introduction of Tasers, the number of people killed or wounded by police gunfire in the past decade has spiked, with 35 people shot. That compares to the 42 people shot in the 100 years prior to 2007.
The past two-and-a-half years have been particularly bad, with 14 people hit by police bullets, eight of them dying.
Experts in the US say Tasers don't reduce the number of shootings because of the so-called "weapons effect" - the presence of lethal and non-lethal weapons makes both sides more aggressive.
It's hard to draw an international comparison because of a lack of data, but statistics show that UK police fatally shot 22 people in the past 10 years - only six more than New Zealand police in a population 13 times as large.
Officers in England and Wales discharged firearms 50 times between 2009 and 2017, including terrorism incidents. New Zealand police discharged firearms against people 39 times in the same period. Australian police fatally shot 20 people between 2006 and 2011 compared to six here.
In January, then-IPCA chairman Sir David Carruthers announced a special inquiry into the recent spate of shootings, saying they were a concern "for all thinking New Zealanders" and the authority wanted to ensure force was used within well-understood limits.
But the new chair, Judge Colin Doherty, now says the investigation is focusing on whether enough is being done to control the availability of firearms, rather than how police are using them. A report is not expected until late 2018.
Certainly, the availability of firearms for criminals is the reason the Police Association believes shootings have risen.
A survey this year found a 38 per cent increase in the number of staff who'd been threatened with a firearm compared to two years ago. Of frontline staff, 21 per cent had been threatened with a gun, 40 per cent of those more than once.
"We believe that's the biggest reason for any spike in shootings," says president Chris Cahill.
"There are no other realistic options to deal with an offender with a firearm than with a firearm in the majority of cases."
But not all of the people police are shooting are armed with guns. An analysis of the 16 deaths since 2007 finds that nine of the victims had firearms, one an airgun, two a machete, one a slasher, one a hammer and two no weapon.
Cahill says the union would be happy for a review if it means members are made safer and don't have to shoot.
"These are traumatic experiences - when you've shot someone it means your life's changed forever."
Police bosses don't appear to think there's a problem.
Superintendent Chris Scahill, national manager of police response and operations, admits an international comparison has never been done, but says New Zealand has its own unique factors including high firearms ownership.
A 14 per cent population increase in the past decade has meant more crime, "more of everything", he says.
The number of times police have discharged firearms at people - including misses - in the past decade has been relatively stable, Scahill says.
"We shot at six people last year out of millions of interactions with the public - I reckon it's pretty low. It's not like we're getting 12, 15, 20 people being shot - that would be concerning."
In the past three years, Scahill says, around twice as many people have shot at police than the other way around.
"What that tells you is that we've arrived at incidents, been shot at, and in roughly half of those we have resolved it without shooting."
He's happy with the process for investigating shootings, with police taking the lead on the criminal inquiry and the IPCA doing its own investigation.
But Tim McKinnel, the police detective turned private investigator who helped free Teina Pora, has concerns about the thoroughness of IPCA inquiries.
For example, a report on the fatal shooting of Michael Taylor near Paeroa in June, 2016 said it was justified but lacked 111 transcripts, scene examination documents, witness statements and scientific evidence about a bullet that entered Taylor's back.
Taylor's family has accused police of "murdering" him. There is no mention in the IPCA report of a long-running dispute between Taylor and his partner and the local council over access to a rail trail over their property, nor previous visits to the property by armed police.
McKinnel says the IPCA relies heavily on investigation work already done by the police and their reports often lack context or have flawed logic.
It's vital that the public see them as independent and transparent, he says.
Judge Doherty rejects the criticism, saying investigations are independent and thorough and regularly audited. Outside experts are brought in when needed, he says, and the authority has wide powers, including being able to establish a Commission of Inquiry.
Ross Meurant, a former police officer and National MP, believes the IPCA has usurped the role of the courts.
"Wherever people are getting shot, this boys' club, this hybrid mongrel, basically decides in a back room on the culpability of the police."
Meurant believes a "gung ho" culture has crept in because officers know they won't be held to account in a court of law.
He says every time a police officer takes a life it should automatically go before a court, so the officer can be cross-examined and the evidence properly tested.
Susan Hughes, QC, who has represented many officers who've shot people, including Abbott, says Meurant's suggestion is "ludicrous”.
Susan Hughes, QC, pictured in 2006 representing a police officer caught drink driving while attending a fatal crash. (TREVOR READ/STUFF)
"The level of inquiry the officers involved in these shootings go through is intense - you can take it from me, if there was any ambiguity or uncertainty ... then they would be charged."
In most of the cases she's been involved in, Hughes says, officers have found themselves in violent situations that came out of nowhere.
"I'm astonished how often these things happen in seconds, minutes - there is no ability to plan for it."
Lance Burdett, a former crisis negotiator for the police who now runs a resilience coaching business, says police don't always get it right, and he questions if they look closely enough at the leadup to shootings to determine what could have been done differently.
"I investigated cops," he says. "One of the things I used to do was go back and see the other jobs they'd been in - why did they lash out?
"Most times they've been to a baby death, they've been in a car chase, they've had something emotional before they've got there and so their mindset might not be right."
Too often, he feels, officers react badly to stressful situations.
"Why don't we stop, take a breath, have a think about things ... and then work through the what ifs ... and get things right. When we go into that fight or flight response because we feel we have to do something, things go wrong."
The Metropolitan police in London take a more "softly, softly" approach, he says. He once watched as drunk, rowdy football fans congregated around a fountain. Police did nothing, and eventually the crowd dispersed.
"In New Zealand we'd bring more cops, fuelling the fire. Sometimes less is more."
Royal New Zealand Police College recruits training with glock pistols. (MONIQUE FORD/STUFF)
Burdett questions the quality and amount of firearms training that staff receive.
"When I was in the police they started to cut back on training because of costs. So frontline staff are still doing it but the cops that came as the second responders ... weren't getting the same amount of training."
Training needs to be as realistic as possible he says, with "offenders" firing back with paintball-style ammunition.
"Are they firing actual weapons at actual people and are actual people firing back? They need to do it as real as they can."
At the police training college in Porirua, a harsh shout fractures the tranquility of the hilltop firearms training facility.
"F... you bitch all you ever f... do is smoke our drugs and drink our alcohol ... you want me to whack you over the head again do you?"
In this training scenario a man with previous violence convictions is threatening a woman with an iron bar.
New recruits are taught how to assess the situation using the TENR model - threat, exposure, necessity, response - which includes assessing whether to act now, later or not at all.
On this occasion, a nervous looking recruit fires four blank rounds from his M4 rifle just as the actor is about to strike the woman - bringing him down.
He will have to account for each of the shots fired.
This intake of 80 recruits is completing their 16-week induction, which includes a nine-day firearms training course. Most have never picked up a gun before.
Inspector David Rose, the college's head of school of response, says decision-making is a big part of firearms training - "what's got you to the point that you think you have to pull the trigger?
"Communication is always the best tool. I've got 30 years in the police and communication has always been the thing that has got me either into the crap or out of the crap."
Trainer Nevan Stevenson, the tactical options team leader, says they do use paintball-style ammunition, but because recruits have to wear padding and full-face helmets it takes away from the realism.
Video simulators are also used.
"The simulator is real time - it shows how quick things can go from quite good to quite bad in a nanosecond."
All recruits pass their firearms training, Stevenson says, although some might have to re-sit aspects of it.
"Some deal with it better than others. It's a very difficult training environment, because of the noise, the smell ... It's stressful on them."
Critics say training for recruits is one thing, but it's the training of existing staff that is lacking. Staff receive one day a year of live fire training, plus a day of tactics training. Taylor, the firearms lawyer, says it's not good enough.
In one case, he cross-examined two constables on the training they received.
"I said 'how many rounds do you fire at the training session?' and they said '10'. A member of a pistol club fires 500 rounds every weekend. The training of the police is so incredibly poor."
Cahill, of the Police Association, says more training would be good.
"Our members are saying they think the training is of a high standard but they would like more of it. Increased training can only be of value, without a doubt."
Scahill, the police operations manager, says firearms training has been overhauled since 2011, providing more and better quality training to level one responders. The number of level one responders has increased to the point where about 7500 of the 8500 police staff now fit into that category.
Other options that have been introduced include non-lethal "sponge" rounds fired from a gas launcher, which have already been used successfully to bring down an armed offender. But they are only used by the AOS. Why can't all staff have them?
Scahill says sponge rounds are not viable in every situation and police have decided to only make them available to a few specialist groups which have more time to consider different options.
Lawyer Ron Mansfield, who assisted Rhys Warren during his trial for shooting four AOS officers at a house near Kawerau last year, sparking a 22-hour siege, questions the mentality of squad members.
The incident set a record for the number of shots fired by police - 46.
“That was a classic example where they had cordoned and contained the person,” Mansfield says.
“No-one else was at the address, there was no rush and someone was en route to basically be able to talk him out. One of the officers described himself in his evidence as an alpha male, which I found enlightening about the attitude.
“There’s a feeling that ‘we are the alpha males’ and hence there’s a preparedness to go in - which simply puts themselves and the person inside the address at risk.”
Taylor says police need to change their entire philosophy around dealing with armed offenders.
"We have the situation in New Zealand where police are still teaching to fire at the central chest area every single time, even though these rifles now are capable of incredible accuracy with some slightly better training. There are other options."
He's considered setting up a small team of legal experts to bring private prosecutions against officers involved in shootings.
"But who would run it? Police have unlimited resources, they'll put every obstacle in your way."
Taylor was one of the lawyers who unsuccessfully sued police on behalf of Richard Neville, who was caught in the crossfire when the AOS shot at Stephen McDonald on Auckland's Northwestern motorway in 2009. It was the same shootout that claimed the life of an innocent courier driver, Halatau Naitoko.
That incident perfectly illustrates where Taylor believes police are going wrong.
"They decided to execute this high speed chase, bail him up on the motorway and put the AOS in. They knew where he lived. They could have waited until he went home and picked him up when he'd calmed down.
"But that's not 'better work stories'."
- Reporters: Tony Wall, Catrin Owen, Phillipa Yalden
- Visuals: Chris Skelton, Monique Ford, Christel Yardley
- 360 video: Ryan Attwood & Jason Dorday
- Design: John Cowie
- Graphics: Kathryn George
- Interactives: John Harford
- Research: Lesley Longstaff
- Editors: Tony Wall & John Hartevelt