Line Of Fire: Episode 2

8:30pm Monday, November 9 on TV One

As the 1980s dawn, the New Zealand Armed Offenders Squad (AOS) is under public scrutiny like never before, in the second episode of the three-part documentary series Line Of Fire (tonight at 8.30pm on TV ONE).

Despite all the incidents that ended without a fatality, it was those in which the AOS took a life that shaped the squads and drew the most criticism. In 1983, the fatal shooting of Paul Chase rocked even the squad members themselves.

Former AOS member Murray Forbes says he will never forget it. In April 1983 he had just joined the squad. “Paul Chase shooting in Petone was the first call out I ever had. The understanding we had was that it could well have been a gang place and for all we knew the firearm was still in the building. It was dark and we needed to go through all these stairs and bang on the door. We kicked the door in because he could well have had the firearm.”

Into the darkness appeared Paul Chase holding something the officer thought to be a gun and he fired a shot, but what had appeared to be a shot gun turned out to be a steel exercise bar.

After Paul Chase’s death the media went ballistic – a man killed for wielding an exercise bar? The squads became hyper-vigilant – every move they made would be under enormous scrutiny.

Forbes says the newspapers attacked the squad for months and the toll on the officers involved was enormous, even if the impact wasn’t visible to outsiders. “Taff and I who had sent the troops forward were as much responsible as the man who pulled the trigger.” He says the impact took a while to go away.

Accused of being trigger-happy, ‘to shoot or not to shoot’ became something members would consider and re-consider, time and time again. Squad members felt the pressure of making life-and-death decisions in a split second.

Then just six months later, a very public call-out in Queen Street, where members were hesitant to take action – even though the offender was clearly putting the lives of others at risk – changed everything. In public mayhem where anything could have happened, it was by luck that a Police dog got the full impact of a gun shot.

Once again, the question was debated: who holds the responsibility? Is the individual squad member simply following orders, or being asked to make life and death decisions in a split second?

Key interviewees share some of their scariest ‘war stories’ – the moments in which they were faced with the terrible decision of whether to take a life or not. Wives and partners tell of their fear and apprehension, as their partners disappeared on operations for days on end.

The 1980s also saw the rise of another tactical response unit – the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) – with members drawn from the Armed Offenders Squad. The first official deployment of the ATS would take place in 1990, at a quiet seaside community near Dunedin. But no previous training prepared squad members for the carnage that would unfold in the quiet seaside town Aramoana.

One ATS squad member says Aramoana was “a sniper’s paradise”.

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