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Born to be a cop: how New Zealand’s laws failed Matthew Hunt

Over the next eight years, he built a CV perfect for law enforcement. There was a degree in criminology from Auckland University of Technology, work in the local district court organising court dates and jury duty before moving into the prison system.

Next was Paremoremo Prison (housing New Zealand’s most dangerous inmates), where he was appointed case manager at the age of 22. His job was to help prisoners address the cause of their offending – and direct them into courses to reduce the chances of them returning to crime.

Few prospective police would receive this sort of insight into criminals before they were even accepted into the force.

Like so many Australians and New Zealanders, it was time to head to Britain for a taste of Europe, working in bars (a great place to understand human nature), at the Nursing and Midwifery Council and Contiki Tours.

Just about everywhere he worked, they said he was welcome back at any time.

When his mate tore an Achilles tendon in Europe, Matt met him at the train station in London and piggybacked him to his flat, where he gave him his bed.

Matt Hunt and his mother Diane at Auckland Airport in 2015. Diane Hunt is campaigning for a change in New Zealand's laws after his shooting.

Matt Hunt and his mother Diane at Auckland Airport in 2015. Diane Hunt is campaigning for a change in New Zealand’s laws after his shooting.

In 2017, he was finally accepted into the NZ Police Force and, after training, was stationed at the boutique seaside suburb of Orewa on the Hibiscus Coast. It is an area known for its long Pacific beach, large retirement community, bike tracks and relaxed dining. A good place to learn.

In the cynical world of policing, Matt earned a reputation as a quiet achiever. Fit, strong and calm, he was able to deal with erratic offenders without force, once persuading a man to give up his knife and surrender.

His supervisor, Sergeant Dean Taylor, was impressed, reporting: “Matt was a junior member of the team who stood out … calm, methodical and eager to learn. He made good decisions and was a good communicator.

“He was eager to hone his skills so when the time was right, he could commence his detective training.”

Taylor did not make those comments in an internal police report but in front of 1500 people, including NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, at Eden Park, the country’s largest sports stadium.

He was speaking at Matt Hunt’s funeral after he was gunned down during what began as a routine traffic stop on a mild winter’s morning in Auckland’s north-western suburb of Massey.

The death raises the question of the protection of NZ police, who do not routinely carry firearms even though they are being confronted by armed offenders at an alarming rate.

In a ridiculous quirk, NZ police are better armed than their Australian counterparts and yet they are banned from having immediate access to the weapons they are authorised to use.

Police cars carry two Glock semi-automatic pistols in a locked box in the cabin and two M4 semi-automatic rifles secured in the boot. (Most Victorian general duties police cannot use long arms.)

NZ police wear stab-proof vests with pockets for bullet-resistant plates when required. The trouble is crooks sometimes won’t wait for police to get themselves set for a gun battle.

Matt’s police car was equipped with the required weapons, which were completely useless in what was a split-second ambush.

It defies logic to give police access to firearms but deny them the chance to defend themselves when it matters. It is about as logical as turning off your hearing aids to save the batteries.

NZ is not some peaceful backwater. It is a nation with crime, social and racial issues the same as anywhere else and proportionately has nearly three times as many guns as Australia.

This is not just about protecting police but protecting everyone. Just a few weeks ago, Melbourne police shot a man in Gladstone Park who was stabbing his mother in the face. He was killed within 30 seconds of police arriving. If they had to return to the car and fiddle with a locked box to get a gun, there would have been two bodies and not one.

In 2019, a right-wing extremist, armed with two semi-automatics, two shotguns and a lever-action rifle, killed 51 people and injured another 49 in Christchurch. (The 29-year-old will be sentenced next month. It is the practice of this column not to name terrorists as it gives these bastards the notoriety they crave.)

After the Christchurch massacre, NZ finally banned semi-automatic weapons – the type outlawed in Australia in 1996 after the Port Arthur massacre.

In NZ, there are about 1.5 million guns (police believe that figure is greatly understated because the registration system has collapsed) for a population of about 5 million. In Australia, there are about 3 million guns for a population of about 25 million. In the US, there are 393 million guns for a population of 330 million.

For 10 years, the NZ Police Association has called for operational police to carry guns. For 10 years, they have been ignored. After Matt Hunt’s death, the government said it would not change this policy.

Association president Chris Cahill says the argument against police carrying guns centres on claims criminals will then be more likely to arm themselves: “That horse has well and truly bolted.”

Can anyone seriously argue crooks won’t carry guns because police firearms are in a locked box?

The second argument is that police carrying guns will change their relationship with the public. But according to Cahill, when police carry guns during emergencies “no one seems to notice”.

It is general duties police, not heavily armed specialists, who are at the greatest risk because no one knows when a routine call will flame out of control. “We know that vehicle stops are the most dangerous,” says Cahill.

People who say bobbies on the beat don’t carry guns are living in the past because the streets of London are patrolled by paramilitary police armed with machine guns.

In the 2017 Westminster terror attack that left five people dead and 50 wounded, first responder Constable Keith Palmer — who was unarmed — was stabbed to death when he bravely confronted the offender, who was then shot dead by armed police.

Two weeks before he died, Matt Hunt moved from Orewa general duties to Waitemata Road Policing. While all young cops have to have a stint in road policing, Matt saw it as an opportunity for multiple public interactions, leading to his goal of becoming a detective.

About 10.30am on Friday, June 19, he and his partner tried to pull over a car when the female driver sped off.

They found it crashed a short time later on Reynella Drive in Massey after it had smashed into a parked car. As Matt’s partner stepped from the police car, a man allegedly jumped from the damaged vehicle carrying a long-barrelled weapon, the type banned a year earlier.

He shot the policeman in the leg. As Matt radioed for back-up, the gunman turned towards the police car.

New Zealand Police guard Reynella Drive, Massey, Auckland, after the shooting.

New Zealand Police guard Reynella Drive, Massey, Auckland, after the shooting.Credit:Getty Images

Matt, who had no chance to unlock the gun safe and was not wearing a ballistic vest, jumped from the car, with his semi-automatic rifle out of reach in the boot. It may as well have been left at the station’s armoury.

He was shot multiple times and died in hospital. A 24-year-old man was arrested and charged with murder.

Matt’s mother, Diane, says: “Matthew was an honourable person; he never judged anyone and was immensely proud of being a NZ police officer. He wore the uniform with great pride and was liked by everyone he met.

Matthew Hunt, who died aged just 28 with so much more to give.

Matthew Hunt, who died aged just 28 with so much more to give.

“My son was a decent human being, a modest person, with a great intellect and a huge willingness to learn and grow.

“He had integrity, was meticulous, set high standards, was kind, compassionate and empathetic.”

Diane says NZ’s laws don’t reflect the dangers of law enforcement and wants the government to introduce laws like those in Victoria that include a mandatory life sentence for killing police: “You have done it there, why can’t we do it here?”

So far, she has more than 33,000 signatures on a petition to change the law.

“Guns are prolific here. There have been four incidents in a week where police have been confronted with guns [including shots fired at police during a pursuit and a dirt biker threatening a policewoman with a gun].

“I want to make sure Matthew is remembered. He deserved so much more than 28 years of life. I am so proud of him.”

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