If we'd shut down checkpoints there would've been protests – Police Commissioner

Police have taken a policy of "discretion" towards up to 50 checkpoints set up across the country during lockdown, the Police Commissioner today told MPs.

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Andrew Coster faced prolonged questioning from National leader Simon Bridges during a Parliamentary committee hearing.

Mr Bridges repeatedly asked if the checkpoints, which have been set up in a number of North Island locations, were illegal and why the police hadn’t shut them down.

Mr Coster said police had had to decide whether to resource that during Level 4 lockdown when they had a number of other requirements put on them.

Some iwi-led checkpoints causing tension as they continue through Alert Level 3

If they had, they would have faced "tens of protests" which would have taken much more policing to deal with.

Local communities were setting them up out of a fear of protecting themselves from coronavirus.

He said the number of checkpoints is now down to "10 or fewer" and he added: "We do not see the need for these to continue and we wish to scale these down as the controls relax."

Police are now alongside local communities setting up the checkpoints, and Mr Coster said he would expect them all to go when the country goes into Level 2.

Mr Bridges said police were condoning the checkpoints by standing alongside the people who had set them up.

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"There is no scenario, and it is Law School 101, where a member of the community is acting lawfully by stopping another Kiwi on a road in New Zealand."

Earlier in the select committee, former chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman told MPs that many iwi were saying that Māori felt "frustrated and disappointed that they were excluded from the room by decision makers in the early stages of the pandemic". 

"Yet, Māori have shown great community in wisdom in the way that they had to look to address the problems they face," speaking of distributing goods and the checkpoints. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also addressed the issue briefly today when asked about it during the daily Covid-19 update press conference. 

"It is not legal for any member of the public to simply stop or prohibit the movement of others, but the police are of course able to do that," she said. 

"Where we've had community checkpoints in some cases they've been information sharing - it hasn't necessarily been prohibiting travel. Where they have been cropping up, we've had police working alongside those checkpoints to make sure that what is happening is legal, is safe and is there to support the community."

She said the need for some of those measures won't be as necessary as we move down alert levels.

Last week, the committee questioned Police Minister Stuart Nash over the checkpoints, who said that "where these checkpoints can operate is with the blessing of police local community local stakeholders". 

"Where they are set up by ratbags and renegades without the support of the local community and police, then police will take this very seriously."

National MP Gerry Brownlee asked Mr Nash about a 70-year-old man who claimed to have been turned away at a Maketu checkpoint, set up by gangs, from getting milk. This story turned out to be false, with police later clarifying the community checkpoint was not gang-affiliated, his travel was deemed non essential and was not allowed under Level 4 restrictions.