Police have assumed extraordinary powers during the lockdown period – but with that has come questions from the public and politicians about how they are exercising those powers.

Police have come under pressure to release legal advice and guidance on how they are using the emergency powers granted to them during New Zealand’s coronavirus lockdown.

Politicians have also grilled the country’s top cop on mixed messages around where the public can travel during the lockdown, as well as compliance checks for returning New Zealanders in self-isolation.

Outgoing Police Commissioner Mike Bush, speaking to the Epidemic Response Committee on his last day in the role, said police had received advice from Crown Law about how to interpret the new powers given to them under various pieces of emergency legislation.

Bush said police were taking an educational approach for most instances of lockdown breaches, and were only using the extraordinary powers “when people are persistently and seriously breaching that compliance”.

“Nobody will be prosecuted for being in doubt, so we’re happy to do what we can in providing clarity on those points.”

Asked by Labour MP Kiritapu Allan about how police were ensuring their discretion was applied fairly and evenly across different communities, he acknowledged that had not been in the case in the past but said data showed “we are now in a place where we apply that discretion evenly”.

Pressed by committee chair Simon Bridges and ACT leader David Seymour on whether police would release the advice from Crown Law, as well as any internal guidelines, Bush said he would need to take advice from the Solicitor-General on that issue.

Seymour was also critical of some of Bush’s public comments about the police response, saying remarks such as “you might have a little trip to our place” were not appropriate for the current environment.

“Those are not the sort of comments or leadership that we require from the leader of the police – we certainly don’t want frontline police officers to be communicating in such a euphemistic, ambiguous or menacing way.”

Asked about how exactly police viewed restrictions on where people could go for exercise during the lockdown, Bush reiterated the “stay local” message and suggested that residents needed to stay within their suburb rather than going further afield.

On the issue of returning New Zealanders going into mandatory self-isolation, he revealed that police had abandoned plans to physically check on each new arrival within three days and had instead moved to a “technology solution” to achieve a similar result.

Bush said the police were continuing to give advice on whether or not mandatory quarantining should take place, and acknowledged the diversity of views on whether a more hardline approach overall needed to be taken.

“You walk this fine line, and there is a huge spectrum of public opinion on how hard we go … it’s not a place that’s foreign to us, that’s one of the most considerable responsibilities of any police officer.”

Bush relinquishes his role as head of the country’s police to Andrew Coster at the end of Friday, but retains his position on the strategic side of the Government’s coronavirus response.

He said he had worked with Coster since 2008, and the pair had been in constant communication throughout the coronavirus response. 

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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