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May 2009
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Hospital Hill siege unprecedented

The 51-hour armed siege took place in downtown Napier.

Photo: Kerry Marshall, NZPA

Superintendent Sam Hoyle struggles to think of an event that compares to the siege on Napier’s Hospital Hill. The armed stand-off took place in an urban area and involved hundreds of police from across the North Island.

“It was massive,” says Sam. “I can’t think of anything else like it because of the difficult terrain we faced and the type of person we were facing. The offender was incredibly well prepared for this type of event. I’ve never seen anything like it on another AOS job.”

As Eastern District Commander, Sam led the operation from the time it started on 7 May and says he only come up for air some three days later.

Although it was an unprecedented situation, Sam was well trained to deal with it. “You rely on basic principles around command and control,” he says.

Within minutes of the first report, a command chart was drawn on a whiteboard at Napier Police Station. Sam and his team worked from that for the first couple of hours.

“As it gets bigger, you add to your command chart and shuffle things around as you have to. We very quickly had to get staff on to welfare and informing duties with police families even though we didn’t know people’s exact status, as we had to beat the media particularly radio.”

Later that day, they set up a forward command at the bottom of Hospital Hill, utilising the local army barracks. Arranging that was made easier by good contacts – the local military commander is Bede Fahey, Policing Development Manager.

Around 100 police officers were on the scene at any one time. This included GDB staff, Armed Offenders Squad members from Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Central, Wellington, Bay of Plenty, Northland and Auckland, Special Tactics Group members flown in from around the country plus dog handlers from all points of the compass. The New Zealand Defence Force sent two Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) and their operatives on the first night of the stand-off. Army bomb disposal experts also came with a specialist robot.

“In an operation like this, we rely on the fact that we are a big organisation. We had excellent executive-level support out of Wellington in terms of resources. PNHQ and other districts just gave up what they had to,” says Sam.

Inspector Kevin Kalff commanded a team of senior sergeants, who managed the influx of staff. Thirty police were required to maintain the 24-hour cordons, working 12 hours about as one day shift and two night shifts. At any one time there were 30 tactical staff and up to three dog teams on duty in the close AOS cordon.

Inspector Mike O’Leary was sent to the SFP within minutes of the call coming in and took charge as forward commander over those hectic first hours. As the dayshift GDB cordon commander he then managed the extraction of people from the wider cordons as required, arranging escorts for necessary items such as medical supplies for people stuck in their homes as the siege stretched on.

Armed police move up Chaucer Road.
Photo: Kerry Marshall, NZPA

An investigative phase led by Detective Superintendent Rod Drew kicked into action, with detectives drawn from around the North Island. Police welfare officers and chaplains focused on staff and families. On top of this, day to day policing in Hawke’s Bay had to continue.

Efforts to keep staff warm, fed and watered were strongly supported by the businesses, emergency organisations and people of Napier. “We had food coming out of our ears,” says Sam. “Commercial organisations donated a range of food while old ladies brought us coffee and baking, none of it with the Heart Foundation tick. It was just incredible.”

Once the offender was contained, the operation became a highly charged matter of negotiation. The Police Negotiating Teams (PNT) had a difficult job with a very difficult offender whose moods were swinging. The hardest part was being unable to recover Senior Constable Len Snee on Thursday night, says Sam. “That didn’t sit well with any of us. What we did had to be as safe as we could make it, given that the offender was shooting at squad members with .223 and .308 rifles. I suppose it was a small comfort that all his best mates from the Hawke’s Bay AOS were on the ground with him that night, surrounding the house.”

Media interest in the operation was intense. Sam regularly updated reporters to ensure public information was accurate and appropriate. He was aware that key audiences would be listening for every word. “There were our own people around the country, and our own district staff, who wanted to be involved but couldn’t, because regular policing has to carry on. At least in the thick of it, you feel like you can do something.”

He needed to keep the confidence of Napier people, and was also aware the offender could be tuning in.

As the investigative phase took over, stories were still coming out about support staff working through the night, as well as extreme bravery shown by AOS, general duties staff and civilians first on the scene who under direct fire recovered the wounded officers and Mr Holmwood. “It makes you incredibly proud to lead people like that,” says Sam.

“This will be one of those black history events that will be talked about for years to come,” he says.

Commissioner Howard Broad says the operation was singular not just because it was technically demanding, but emotionally demanding as well.

“When you put those two things together, there’s no doubt that Hospital Hill will be written in the text books of Police.”

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