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Hamilton police officer made unlawful arrest, wrongful use of force, IPCA finds

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Four Hamilton police officers wrongfully “wrestled” a man to the ground, put him in a headlock and pepper-sprayed him, an Independent Police Conduct Authority report has revealed.

The report, released today, said the wrongful use of force happened after a Waikato District police officer (described as “Officer A”) targeted the man for an unlawful vehicle stop because of his facial tattoos.

The incident took place in Dinsdale on June 10, 2022. The police officers and members of the public involved in the incident were not named in the report.

According to the authority, Officer A was working alone monitoring seatbelts and cellphone use while driving when he spotted a man with facial tattoos riding as a passenger in a Holden Rodeo ute.

“Officer A told the communications centre that ‘the front passenger has some come tip me out tats’,” the report said.

Officer A told the authority that he noticed the vehicle’s female driver was not wearing a seatbelt. He later saw the ute turn into the Dinsdale shops on Killarney Rd.

“Officer A says he stopped [the] car because he had seen [the driver] driving without wearing a seatbelt,” the report said.

“Our assessment, on the basis of available evidence, is that [Officer A] stopped the car because he had profiled [the man] based on his facial tattoos.

“It follows that subsequent police actions were not part of their lawful duty.”

Two more police officers arrived at the scene and told the driver and her tattooed passenger that they wanted to check if the vehicle was roadworthy.

The driver told the authority a “swarm of cops” said they needed to look inside her car to check the seatbelts worked.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority has found a Hamilton police officer made a wrongful arrest in June 2022. Photo / Alan Gibson
The Independent Police Conduct Authority has found a Hamilton police officer made a wrongful arrest in June 2022. Photo / Alan Gibson

The authority’s report said checking seatbelts as part of a roadworthiness check was lawful under the Land Transport Act but could not be used as a “pretext to undertake a search”.

“CCTV footage shows that throughout the entire incident, officers paid very little attention to [the driver] despite her being the person who Officer A alleges was driving without wearing a seatbelt.”

The CCTV footage also showed the man getting “increasingly frustrated” as he did not think it was fair for the car to be searched.

“He felt the police were belittling him in front of the crowd,” the report said.

Audio from a shop owner’s cellphone recorded police officers warning the man he would be arrested for obstruction if he did not move out of the way. When the man did not comply, he was placed under arrest.

“[The man] was not in any way obstructing police from carrying out their roadworthiness checks,” the report said.

“His arrest was therefore unjustified, even if Officer A’s vehicle stop had been lawful.”

Both CCTV and cellphone footage show officers then pulled on the man’s limbs to get him off balance and bring him to the ground, placed him in a headlock and used pepper spray.

A bystander told the authority the man “was not really resisting”.

“Our review of CCTV footage [shows] he was explaining to the officers why he could not be handcuffed behind his back, but they were not listening to him.”

Police also arrested the ute’s driver and a shop owner. No one was charged after the arrests.

According to the report, the man went to the doctor after the incident due to injuries caused during the arrest, including an injury to his neck which caused him to wince in pain when talking.

Waikato District Commander Superintendent Bruce Bird.
Waikato District Commander Superintendent Bruce Bird.

In a statement, Waikato District Commander Superintendent Bruce Bird acknowledged the authority’s findings.

“The officer who initially stopped the car did not have a legal reason to do so and therefore this was unlawful.”

Bird said the officer stopped the car based on the visible facial tattoos of the passenger travelling in the vehicle.

“We also note the following force used to arrest the man was unlawful and not appropriate,” Bird’s statement said.

“The staff involved in this matter have shown genuine remorse for their actions and have reflected on the impact of their decision-making on that day, particularly the initial officer who made the decision to stop the vehicle.”

Bird said the officer was subject to an employment process of which the outcome is confidential.

“Three officers have undergone a training programme led by NZ Police Iwi and Communities to strengthen their cultural competency as well as further tactical communication training.”

Bird said the New Zealand Police is an organisation dedicated to fair and equitable policing and this incident did not reflect fairness.

“We are disappointed that on this occasion we fell short of our standards,” Bird said.

“The officers involved remain working for New Zealand Police and have grown and learnt from this incident. We know we don’t always get it right, but we are committed to ensuring that we learn from our mistakes and improve our practice.”

Maryana Garcia is a multimedia reporter based in Hamilton covering live news in Waikato. She previously worked with the Rotorua Daily Post and Bay of Plenty Times.

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