Police Commissioner Andrew Coster says his frontline staff will use commonsense and discretion when using what he described as the "remarkable" powers granted to police to enforce Covid-19 health rules.
Police now have the legal power to enter someone's home without a warrant under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Bill, which was rushed through Parliament under urgency last night to be in place in time for alert level 2 restrictions this morning.
The National Party and Act didn't support the bill, saying it was an overreach of powers, while the Human Rights Commission said it was "deeply concerned" about the lack of scrutiny of the bill before it was passed into law.
Now there is no longer a national state of emergency, the new law sets up the legal framework for future alert level which effectively allows the Health Minister to issue an order that would make alert level rules legally enforceable.
That might include, for example, the ability for police or "enforcement officers" to close certain premises or roads, ban certain types of travel or congregations, or require people to be physically distant or to stay at home in their bubbles if necessary.
It also would allow warrantless searches of private property if there was a reasonable belief that the alert level rules were being broken, such as gatherings of more than 10 people.
This has led to concern about the sweeping powers given to police to be potentially abused, although Coster - who took over as Commissioner in the early days of the level 4 lockdown - told the Herald that New Zealanders could be reassured that frontline police will not overstep the mark.
"We police by consent. We're being really careful in our approach to policing during Covid-19, where we've had access to some pretty remarkable powers.
"Every time we've changed levels, there's been a period of adjustment as people get their heads around what the controls mean. We understand that, we need the buy-in of the community, so that's why we've stepped very carefully before we get to enforcement."
Any fears that police would spy on houses to monitor the number of people inside were unfounded, says Coster, who said the new powers would be used only on blatant rule breakers.
The vast majority of the public were following the rules anyway because they understood the need to stop the spread of Covid-19, said Coster.
"The legislation gives the police a mechanism to act on the people who are flouting the controls and putting others at risk. There's no need for widespread enforcement action because that suggests there's not widespread buy-in from the public. There is.
"Our enforcement will, generally speaking, be when a member of the public has observed behaviour and thinks 'this is out of hand and something needs to be done'," said Coster, giving an example of a party spilling from a home into the street.
"That's where our effort will go. We're not waiting outside every house waiting to see how many people go wandering in."
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