Since 1916 police officers in New Zealand have shot and killed 40 people in the line of duty.

It is rare for any of these officers to speak about their experience in the media.

But today one officer has opened up about the moment he became a killer - and the aftermath - in the hopes that his story will help people better understand police shootings.

The gunman was just metres away.

Advertisement

He raised the shotgun at the police officer.

The standoff was only going to end one way - only one man was going to walk away alive.

The officer had to make the call.

He did not hesitate.

He aimed and fired.

In the two seconds it took him to react that night, two lives were forever changed: One ended and the other irreparably damaged.

The officer heard the incident begin to unfold over the police radio.

"Hearing it over the radio was really quite scary actually," he recalled.

"You couldn't see the fear, but you could hear the fear in relation to the officers and I knew I had to respond - and so did all the other officers working that night too."

A police officer who, in the line of duty, shot and killed an armed offender. Photo / Brett Phibbs
A police officer who, in the line of duty, shot and killed an armed offender. Photo / Brett Phibbs

He jumped in his car and drove to the scene.

The officer was granted permanent name suppression by the Coroner.

For legal reasons, and to protect the privacy of both him and the man who was shot, the Herald on Sunday cannot publish any specific details of the fatal incident.

But for the first time outside a courtroom or investigation, the officer has spoken about that night.

The officer said the dynamics of the incident changed "really quickly" and as he drove to the scene he ran through every conceivable scenario in his head.

"You're thinking about your safety - but you've still got a job to do," he said.

"You're thinking, 'what happens if he does this or does that' - you've got to think about all the possibilities.

"So many things are running through your mind ... it's really quite stressful."

Soon enough, he was within spitting distance of the offender.

He was the only armed officer at the scene - his colleagues were at the nearest station "arming up" - so he had to take the lead.

The officer can still remember the seconds of the shooting - and it was just that, seconds - like it was yesterday.

The flashbacks have eased but he can relive that moment in brutal clarity when he needs to.

"I can recall a lot of things leading up to it, but the moment that I had to make the decision ... I couldn't hear anything," he said.

"I could only see him. I couldn't see anything in my periphery.

"It's like someone had dropped two big black curtains and all I could see was this narrow piece of space and nothing outside it and it was just me and him.

"When I fired I was expecting a loud bang, or loud bangs, and all I could hear were (sound of fingers clicking) ... the noise was really quite quiet.

"I couldn't even hear the sirens of the patrol cars …"

The officer fired multiple shots at the man.

It was all over in seconds.

"I just remember him falling to the ground and dropping his weapon … I went over and that's when another officer came over, and I remember him picking up the shotgun."

The man did not die instantly.

As he lay injured on the ground the officer's colleagues tried to save his life, administering frantic CPR.

"Everybody knew what they had to do and they did their utmost to try and save [him], they really did."

The officer was taken away from the scene and soon heard the news that the man had died.

"We got a phone call and it was really quite harrowing, the fact that I've taken somebody's life ...

"And then it was, 'shit have I done something wrong?' That was my natural thought, have I done something wrong here?

"I knew I was going to be investigated, I knew my actions were going to be investigated to the nth degree and I knew I'd done the right thing but you don't know what the investigation is going to bring up, you don't know what conclusions they are going to draw.

"I thought to myself, 'shit, I'm going to lose my job, I could go to prison over this for something I thought I was doing my job'.

"I'm sure every person in the police that's pulled the trigger will naturally think that - have I done the right thing? I could be in a power of shit here ..."

As with all police shootings - fatal and otherwise - three investigations were launched.

The police investigated to establish the circumstances and whether there was any criminal culpability.

The file was then referred to the Coroner for inquest.

And the Independent Police Conduct Authority scrutinised every second that related to the death.

The officer would later be cleared on all levels, with the IPCA stating he was justified in firing because he genuinely believed his life was under immediate threat.

"In those circumstances, the force used was justified," their decision stated.

To this day, the officer stands by his decision to fire.

Talking about it is hard - at times the emotion overcomes him and his sturdy voice gives way to tears, his voice breaks and he has to stop and catch his breath.

But he is staunch about the facts.

He had to stop an offender and he did so using force he had been trained and permitted to deliver.

"I probably knew that I was going to have to use my firearm after I saw him point the firearm at the other officers ... that's probably when I thought, I'm going to have to do something here," he said.

"I just did what I thought was necessary. I broke cover from my vehicle, challenged this person.

"I can't remember what I shouted at him but it drew the attention away from the officers and onto me.

"And when I challenged him that's when things changed within a split second - thought, I'm gonna get my beans here and it was just reactive.

"I know it sounds horrible but it was either me or him - and it was me.

"I won, that's how I look at it. I've got a family. I've got a right to go home. I've got a right to defend myself."

The officer can still remember the shooting vividly. He is the first officer to speak out about such an incident. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The officer can still remember the shooting vividly. He is the first officer to speak out about such an incident. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The officer said the man had many choices that night.

He could have dropped his firearm, put his hands up.

He could have stayed home in the first place.

"He didn't have to do what he did that night … this is what the public need to realise - it's the actions of the offender that dictate our outcome," the officer said.

"We don't go to work wanting to shoot people - that's the last thing on an officer's mind.

"If we can resolve an incident with the least amount of force possible - fantastic, it's great.

"But when you've got to make the ultimate decision and I, we, have got a split second to decide, it's quite harrowing, it really really is."

While steadfast that his decision was the best and right thing to do for himself and, moreover, for public safety, the death of the man is always at the forefront of his mind.

"Don't get me wrong, I knew what I had to do and I knew that the decision that I made was the correct decision and I stood by my decision, but unfortunately a young man died as a result of my actions," he said, choking up.

"To say that doesn't affect us is wrong. It does.

"I feel for his family, you know … someone's lost a son and they can't spend birthdays with him and they can't have Christmases with him.

"I feel sorry for the parents and I just wish that he was still alive today, I wish he could still spend time with his family and his family spend time with him, but unfortunately that's not the case."

When the officer finally got home from his shift - after hours of answering questions about the shooting - he was a mess.

He was physically exhausted, emotionally bereft and mentally shattered.

"I couldn't stop crying," he said.

"I got home in the morning and woke my wife up, the first thing I said to her was, 'I killed somebody'."

"I rung dad and said, 'you've got to come round', and dad came and visited me and he walked in the door and the first thing I said was, 'dad I've killed somebody'.

"Telling your parents you've had to take someone's life ... it's really quite tough."

The officer was no stranger to the police weapons cache, he had trained with firearms and other resources including tasers and pepper spray since he was a young recruit.

But this was the first time he'd had to actually draw a gun at another human being, the first time he'd pulled the trigger anywhere outside the firearms range.

"I'd put firearms on plenty of times in the job because you perceive a threat and there's no point going to the job without the tools," he said.

"A firearm is the ultimate tool, it's a tactical option that we've got … we've got this whole gambit of tools that we can use and there's no point going to an incident without the right tools.

"That's not only for my protection, that's also for the protection of the public - if I go to a job and I haven't got the right tools on, then I'm no good to anybody.

"You never thought in a million years that you'd be the one pulling the trigger, but everyone is aware that they might be put in a situation where they have to pull the trigger."

The officer was stood down for two weeks as his colleagues investigated and scrutinised his actions.

He gave a 12-hour interview, produced a 200-page statement and discussed - repeatedly - every millisecond of the shooting.

He met with his lawyer, the Police Association, his boss. All he seemed to do was talk about the shooting.

And all he wanted to do was forget about it and get back to work.

"Sitting around home and worrying about it and thinking about it wasn't the right place for me," he explained.

"I wanted to get back to work because to me doing my job would have helped me to be normal.

"I thought about leaving police, I thought, 'jeez do I really want this?'

"I love my job. I still love my job. At the time I loved my job but I sort of thought to myself, 'is this grief really worth it? How's it going to affect my family life? What am I going to do outside the police?'

"I did think about leaving, but … all I did was my job.

"I know it sounds harsh when I say, 'I did my job', but that's the line of work I'm in.

"Police are given special legislative powers to use force in relation to dealing with people and right from doing to someone, speaking, baton, spray, hands, dog, taser - right through to firearms. A firearm is just another tactical option to deal with certain situations, and this was the only way to deal with this situation.

"I did what I had to do that night with the tools that I had with me, why would I want to leave. But to say that I didn't think about it I'd be lying - I did think about it quite a lot.

When he was finally cleared to return to duty he struggled.

The number of people who knew the identity of the "trigger puller" was restricted to those at the scene, his close colleagues, his managers.

But he was paranoid he was being watched and judged.

He was paranoid members of his community would work it out, that he would run into the dead man's family and they would demand answers that he could not give.

The officer was still having flashbacks - vivid replays of the moment he shot another man dead.

But he was determined to carry on in the job he loved.

"A couple of months after I went back to work I went to an incident where again I had to draw my firearm," he revealed.

"I made the line in the sand again and, fortunately, he threw his weapon down on the ground and it turned out to be a plastic pistol.

"When I was challenging this person I thought, 'jeez, I've only just been investigated for one, I'm going to be investigated for another one'.

"I thought 'how are people going to look at me?'

"But the reality is, I could go to work today or tonight, tomorrow, next week and the same thing could happen - we just don't know what's around the corner and it's our training that gets us through basically, and our decision making.

"I still get emotional about it and I still feel for him. I still wish that he didn't do what he did.

"But I can't dwell on it, I've just got to get on with my work, which is what I'm doing … that's what I took the oath for, that's what I joined the police for, that's what I get paid for - to keep my community safe, and that's what I'm proud of.

Whenever there is a police shooting, fatal or otherwise, there is a strong public reaction.

It's polarising. People either support or berate the officers involved.

It's the latter that sparked this officer to speak out about his incident.

"I'm probably speaking on behalf of a lot of officers that have been involved with shootings. I've spoken with a lot of them and we just want the public to see the other side of the story," the officer said.

"Whenever there's a police shooting we always hear that there's an investigation and all that type of stuff and we hear about the victim offender, and we hear a lot from the family about what type of person he was good or bad or whatever.

"But we never hear anything in relation to the officer, what they go through that night, what they go through afterwards, how it affects them, the day the week the month the years afterwards ... it's not as if we just pull a trigger and put the gun away and go back to work.

"I - we - as police shooters just want the public to understand that we're human too. This does affect us."

"Police are not paid to take bullets". A police officer who shot a man dead says he has a right to defend himself. Photo / Brett Phibbs

He said the lack of understanding about police shootings was frustrating and he hoped sharing his would help to educate people on the complexities of the issue.

"One thing that I don't think the public understood about my incident is that sometimes we can't let gunmen run - I've got to think of the big picture.

"What happens if there's someone walking down the road and he's confronted by an armed gunman? What happens if he stops a car at gunpoint and gets into that? What happens if he breaks into a house? Other people could have been injured that night and it's all the 'what ifs' we've got to think about.

"He had to be taken into custody and unfortunately, the use of the firearm was the only way it could be.

"I couldn't run the risk of him running off, I couldn't live with myself if he had run off and something had happened, I would not have done my job as a New Zealand police officer.

"I swore on an oath when I joined that I would protect life and property and life's the ultimate thing - I had a duty to protect other people's lives, you know? We were in an area where other people lived and I couldn't let him run. There was no option.

Inevitably after a shooting, the public ask the same questions.

"Why didn't they just taser him?"

"Why couldn't they have shot him in the foot?"

"Why did they have to kill him?"

"Unless you're in that situation, no one will ever know," said the officer.

"We're not trained to shoot to kill - we shoot to incapacitate. As soon as there's no longer a threat - I'm not talking about him being dead, it's just him no longer being a threat - then we're not justified in firing again.

"In my incident, as soon as he dropped the shotgun, the threat over me had ceased. He died as a result.

"I didn't carry on firing at him. There was no longer a threat there so I was not justified."

The officer, and all police, are trained to shoot at the biggest target on their threat.

On a human being, that target is centre mass, or the torso.

"When your life is in danger, you don't want to be aiming for the arm that might be out to the side," the officer explained.

"You look at the thickness of an arm compared to the centre mass of somebody - you want to make sure that ... you're protecting yourself, you don't want to get hurt, and you are aiming for something that you want to hit.

"Because believe me, when you are looking down the barrel of a loaded shotgun the last thing that I'm thinking about is, 'I want to shoot him in the leg or the arm'.

"It's 'I just need to hit this guy' and the only place I'm going to be able to hit this person is in centre mass.

"I can't understand why people say 'shoot him in the leg' or 'shoot him in the arm'. Why would you want to think like that?

"I've got a right to protect myself as well and I'll be doing everything I can to protect myself.

"Police aren't paid to take bullets. I'm there to protect people and to look after myself and to look after my colleagues.

"I've got to make sure I do my job and, unfortunately, the biggest target is centre mass and that's top of the legs to the neck region - that's what we're trained to shoot at."

So, what about tasers?

Why are police using firearms on offenders when, arguably, they could use a taser to incapacitate?

For the officer, the answer is simple - action always beats reaction, the person who moves first wins.

If an offender fires at a cop with a shotgun, that bullet will travel at about 1220 metres per second; a high-powered rifle about 2000m/s.

"If he pulls the trigger … jeez, a person's reaction is not going to be good," the officer said.

"No one's reaction's going to beat that - taser's not going to stop anyone with a firearm.

"If someone's got a firearm pointed at you - you shoot them.

"You use a taser, they can always break the wires; you may not get the neuromuscular incapacitation that you need; NMI is muscle contraction - if they've got their fingers on a trigger, muscle contraction is going to discharge the firearm; the probes might not engage.

"Taser is just simply is not an option - it just wouldn't work … in my opinion, a taser was never brought in for that scenario."

The officer pointed out that with a taser, the carrier also needed to be able to get within 5-or-so metres of the offender to discharge the weapon.

"Well, jeez, that's the distance between you and me … I'm not going to break cover, walk forward and shoot someone with a taser? Why would I do that? It's illogical.

"By the time they've pulled the trigger, I'm gone, that's it - and then I'm no good to anybody."

It's been years since the day the officer shot a man dead but it still affects him and he thinks about the incident regularly.

He's been back and forth to counselling and he can cope with the fact that he's killed someone.

It's a manageable truth, but one that's never easy to swallow.

"I don't think I'll ever get over it, I'll never forget the fact that I took someone's life.

"I'll never forget the fact that my actions - directly or indirectly - took this son away from a mum and dad, but I deal with it better as each day goes by.

"I don't think you can ever get over something like this - and there's always something that will trigger it, for lack of a better word, there'll always be something that will make me think about it.

"I just want the public to understand that it's a tough road, and it's for years too … mine was many years ago and I still think about it and I still think about him.

"I sometimes think about if he had lived, I would have somehow liked to have spoken to him and talked to him about what happened.

"He might not have wanted to talk to me but if he had lived I would have loved to have talked to him, find out what was going through his head … ask him, 'why did you do this?', and he could understand why I did this.

"I've spoken to plenty of officers who have had shootings and it's still quite emotional and raw with them as well. It doesn't leave you - it never leaves you."

The impact of that fateful day has also changed the way he does his job.

He is still often engulfed with paranoia that people - both in the police and in the community - are watching him.

"I still think about how I'm perceived in relation to that incident when I use force these days - am I still looked upon as, 'he's that guy', when I put my use of force reports through. I can't help thinking 'do management look at me as he's the guy, and do we need to scrutinise him a bit more?' I still feel like I'm being watched a little bit," he said.

"I've been told by police that's not the case but it's always still in the back of my mind, it's just a natural thing.

"I'm also more cautious … I'm probably a bit more reluctant to go to incidents by myself,
I probably value my own safety a bit more now.

"It has affected me how I interact with people and how I attend incidents too - I might be the closest car to an incident but I hang back a little bit more and wait for backup.

"Don't get me wrong, though, if it's a life and death situation I'll be there like a flash - but other incidents I'm probably a bit more cautious about."

Police shootings - the facts

From 1916 to date police have shot and killed 40 people in the line of duty.

They have shot and wounded a further 41 people in non-fatal incidents.

Frontline police in New Zealand do not carry firearms routinely.

Most of the constabulary are trained to use the Glock semi-automatic pistol and Bushmaster rifle.

If a firearm is needed, senior officers can authorise staff to carry them.

Since 2012 frontline police vehicles have been fitted with locked boxes containing firearms.

Before they can unlock and retrieve a firearm, an officer must advise their supervisor.

Fatal shootings:
1916 2
1941 1
1970 1
1975 1
1976 1
1979 1
1982 1
1983 1
1985 1
1986 1
1990 2
1993 1
1995 2
1996 6
1999 1
2000 1
2004 1
2007 1
2008 1
2009 2
2011 2
2013 2
2015 3
2016 3
2017 3
2018 1