A Tongan man who died in custody yesterday after assaulting an elderly passer-by in central Auckland was the victim of police brutality, according to a witness.

However, police have denied the claims and are backing the actions of the officers who struggled to restrain him before his heart stopped.

The 29-year-old died in Auckland Hospital three days after his violent struggle with police on Sunday afternoon in Freemans Bay.

A witness claims she saw police Taser him five times and said he was bleeding heavily from facial wounds he suffered during his arrest.

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The police arrest came after Ngata violently attacked a 76-year-old, kicking him five or six times in the head and rendering him unconscious.

But the witness – who says she has video footage of the incident - denies suggestions he was on drugs, saying he was a dedicated factory worker and a "big soft teddy bear".

She did not deny that Ngata attacked the elderly man but said the 29-year-old was mentally unwell.

"He's was saying there were demons in his head," she said. "He's sick. I was screaming, 'He's sick, he needs to go to hospital'."

The woman claimed her friend was effectively "beaten to death".

Police Tasered a man they were arresting several times. He was taken to hospital where he passed away Photo / NZME
Police Tasered a man they were arresting several times. He was taken to hospital where he passed away Photo / NZME

"Police just ran straight up to him. All you heard was, 'Get down on the ground' and he just stood there, and then bang, bang," she said.

"They started smashing his head. His face was bleeding, his whole face was covered in blood. You could see blood dripping from his face."

Police Tasered a man they were arresting several times. He was taken to hospital where he passed away Photo / NZME
Police Tasered a man they were arresting several times. He was taken to hospital where he passed away Photo / NZME

She claims that Ngata was handcuffed and, despite his injuries, taken to the police cells instead of a hospital.

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She understood that his heart stopped and officers had to perform CPR for 45 minutes before he was eventually transferred to Auckland Hospital, where he died three days later.

"I watched them beat him to death."​​

Superintendent Karyn Malthus, Auckland City District Commander, said this was not a case of police brutality and she was "comfortable with the actions of my staff".

From the Eagle helicopter Ngata was first sighted by police attacking the elderly man.

He then advanced on police in a threatening manner and was Tasered four times, Malthus said.

The first two uses of the Taser were ineffective, the second two were effective, she said.

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"He continued to resist police attempts to restrain him, to cuff him. It took four police officers to restrain him."

She confirmed Ngata's heart had stopped afterwards while he was in police custody but said "the exact timeframe will be determined in the investigation".

The state of his mental health and whether or not he was under the influence of drugs would be considered during the investigation, she said.

"Life support was switched off in the early hours of Wednesday morning, which enabled members of his family who had to travel from overseas to gather by his bedside.

"It is completely understandable that the [woman] is upset at her loss.

"Our officers face challenging situations every day and must make extremely quick decisions while considering the safety of themselves and members of the public.

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"They are fast-moving, unpredictable and high-pressure situations that require quick judgemnts."

This was a particularly fluid and confrontational violent situation, she said.

"The offender continued to vigorously avoid arrest for over five minutes before two more officers were required to bring him under control."

This was not a case of police brutality, she said.

"I have viewed the footage myself and am comfortable with the actions of my staff.

"I have no doubt that if they had not intervened with the necessary tactical options they would have incurred serious injury themselves. No officer comes to work wanting to get into these situations."

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Police had footage from the Eagle, as well as Taser and cell footage but were not in a position to release it during the investigation, Malthus said.

Ngata was not significantly known to police, however police attended a family harm-related incident at the same address the day prior to this assault, she said.

Police had spoken with the deceased's family "to better understand what happened".

"Any death is a tragedy and we are working with, and supporting Mr Ngata's family, including his parents and wider family who are grieving their loss," she said.

Family and friends of Ngata posted on Facebook saying, "God has gained another angel" following his death.

One family member described him as a "very brave, caring young soldier" who was a loving man who looked after his family.

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"It's been hard for all those you care for you … breaks my heart and everyone that cares for you to see you go," they wrote.

The elderly victim was still recovering in hospital and was reported to be doing well.