On 27 April 2018, Police were searching for a man, Mr X, in Hamilton, after a violent assault on his partner. He was seen running towards a park bordering the Waikato River at about 11.08pm. A Police dog handler tracked Mr X to the river's edge, where the dog indicated Mr X had gone into the water. The Waikato Police boat and Eagle helicopter were called to assist in the search.
The Police boat was crewed by three officers. Two had been trained to operate the Police boat. A Fire and Emergency New Zealand officer joined them on board, operating a thermal imaging camera to assist with night vision.
The Acting Inspector managing the search told the boat crew not to bring Mr X on board without first making a plan for doing so. The officers on the boat took this to mean their role was limited to assisting with the search for Mr X, and did not plan for rescuing Mr X from the water if needed.
At about 12.25am, Eagle crew spotted Mr X in the water, alongside a steep cliff, with no way out of the river. The officer skippering the boat took the boat to a position about 15 metres downstream from Mr X. This was too far away to deploy rescue equipment, but he kept the distance because of the danger they believed Mr X presented.
Eagle footage showed that Mr X began moving into the river towards the Police boat but was caught in a strong current which pulled him into an eddy. Mr X disappeared underneath the water and was not seen alive again.
The Authority found the officers were not adequately trained or sufficiently experienced to manage a rescue operation. It found the officers on the boat were overly focussed on earlier warnings and instructions from senior officers, instead of making their own risk assessments and planning for the possibility of finding Mr X in the water. The skipper did not show the leadership needed as the search operation developed into a rescue and placed the boat in a position that made retrieving
Mr X from the water impossible.
Authority Chair, Judge Colin Doherty said:
"While the officers were not under a legal duty to protect Mr X from injury when he disappeared underwater, a moral obligation to help him arose from the nature of the operation. Officers did nothing to help him when it was most needed.
Man drowns in Waikato River during Police search (PDF 501 KB)