Inside the Armed Offenders Squad's gruelling selection process

by Donna-Marie Lever / 24 January, 2019
Photography by Nicola Edmonds
Armed Offenders Squad

“Number 12”, Constable Carl Williams, pulls the trigger in the “shoot don’t shoot” scenario, which forces candidates to make life-or-death decisions.

They’re balaclava-clad, dressed in black and carry deadly weapons. The Armed Offenders Squad is New Zealand’s largest tactical police division – tasked to cordon, contain and negotiate high-risk situations. Donna-Marie Lever was granted rare access to the gruelling selection process as regular police officers try to crack the crack-force.

Twenty men, three women. Each identified by a number, nothing more. No names, no feedback, zero encouragement – and their every move is under scrutiny. They are being watched, and the fear and uncertainty in their eyes show they know it.

The challenge before them is “the Misery”, an unforgiving boot camp for even the fittest athletes. As instructions are belted out, the “Numbers” fall into a synchronised sea of press-ups, planking, burpees, star-jumps and relentless military-style drills driving them to the brink of physical exhaustion. They are enthusiastic, but not all of them are nailing it, and this is just the beginning.

“Don’t let me see you be slack. Some of your behaviour has been seen and commented on.” Senior Constable David Campbell* (name changed for operational reasons) is the voice pushing the physical pain. He’s the applicant co-ordinator, and a long-serving member of the Armed Offenders Squad and Special Tactics Group (the police’s full-time tactical unit, formerly the anti-terrorist squad). Campbell is the first to see every Number in the morning, the last to see them at night. He’s scanning the group, looking for body language, attitude, interactions and connections, physical exhaustion, illness and injury. He sets the standards and expectations – if they fail or fall short he dishes out penalties too, usually more punishing press-ups.

Campbell is one of 21 police marking the candidates over the coming days, and he’s clear on what he’s looking for. “Good decision makers who are physically fit. Their mindset and drive has to be different. They need to be part of a team, because they don’t work as individuals, and have to think quickly on their feet reacting to dynamic situations. We can’t have cops who get flustered.”

Humour definitely helps and Campbell is funny. His army-style demeanour is punctuated by sideward glances, eyebrow arches, throwaway comments and smirks. The Numbers appear unsure how to take him, so they play it straight; no one flinches or even cracks a grin, but it’s early days.

Armed Offenders Squad

The Numbers planking. Senior Constable David Campbell says he picks "good decision makers who are physically fit" for the squad.

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Poolside at the Police College in Porirua, the man with the ultimate power to pick potential operators locks eyes on the squad lapping each lane. One is struggling, swimming without putting his head under the water and the clock is ticking. Senior Sergeant Rick Spooner notices; he’s the AOS tactical group’s co-ordinator and has just launched into the last of three selection courses for the year. “They’re stressed because they don’t know what’s coming next. They haven’t built a team culture yet. We are starting to see some leaders stand up. Are they all going to make it? I don’t know; we’ll soon find out.”

This is day two. The morning has already been long and brutal. “We know they were up at 4am, because they live above us and we could hear them moving around,” says Spooner.

As dawn breaks, the Numbers line up, nervously awaiting instruction and their first task. They go straight into the Cooper test, a 12-minute run during which, depending on age and gender, they must achieve a certain distance.

Then, without rest, they endure the physical competency test (PCT), an obstacle course all police must pass to graduate, and are retested on every two years. It includes a timed 200m run, pushing a trailer, crawling under hurdles and leaping through windows and clearing walls. There’s little warning as the pace then switches to a mental challenge, with an exam on firearms legislation. So far they have no idea how they are ranking. That’s the point.

“We’re not encouraging them. It’s up to the individual to create their own self-motivation, resilience and willpower,” says Spooner. “We are a blank canvas, so if someone did a really good time in the PCT, for example, we wouldn’t say, ‘Good time, well done,’ and pat them on the back. We can’t. Sometimes that’s hard.”

Constable Jordan Oliver chooses her tactical options.

It’s relentless, and it’s meant to be. The job they are all striving for is anything but ordinary. Continuous learning is compulsory. While waiting for the next task, the applicants are busy tying complex knots; they’re on the move, or reading up on the law. They may be tested on it, they may not be, but if they are they don’t know when.

Spooner says gone are the days of trying to “break them to make them”, like they did when he made the AOS in 1991. “That old-school stuff was definitely there to break you. If they didn’t like you for whatever reason, they hounded you and put the pressure on until you said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ But the police have changed; we are so much better than we were back then.”

Still, this is clinical – something Spooner makes no apologies for. The Numbers respect him, call him “Senior” and obey his every word despite what appears to be his lack of acknowledgement.

“We don’t want to personalise it. We don’t want to call them ‘mate’; we don’t want to call them by their names because it creates a connection.”

He’s not looking for the elite, but rather those who he can mould into extraordinary police. “They don’t need to be the best to be in the AOS. We’ll teach them everything they need to know to be the best. This is just selection to test their physical fitness, drive, determination and decision-making. That is the foundation of what we need to build on, so we are looking for the foundation.”

Senior Sergeant Rick Spooner briefs candidates about what will happen next. No one gets any feedback on how they are doing or how they have done so far.

Senior Sergeant Rick Spooner briefs candidates about what will happen next. No one gets any feedback on how they are doing or how they have done so far.

In a dimly lit corridor in the basement of the Police College, an actor waits in the wings, armed with a gun. It’s show time. Number 12 is up first and he’s briefed by an instructor.

“The Prime Minister is in a room behind the door, in a meeting. The door is the only entrance to the room. Protection Services have been deployed to another emergency and have asked you to take the security position guarding the door until they return. They have briefed you, no one is to enter and no one is expected to arrive. You are alone and responsible for protecting the PM. Anyone wearing a fluoro vest is not part of the scenario. The exercise will end when we say ‘Stop, stop, stop.’”

The instructor steps back and a man in a fluoro vest hits “record” on the iPad.

Number 12 begins by choosing his weapons of choice. OC (pepper) spray, a Taser and a gun. The actor is another police officer casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. He enters the corridor, instantly aggressive. He’s yelling, threatening, and finally pulls a gun from the back of his pants. Spooner’s watching events unfold.

Twelve talks to the man first, warns him, then sprays him with little effect, and places him under arrest as the situation escalates. The actor begins to raise his gun. Bang, bang, bang. Twelve shoots him. For the scenario, Twelve’s weapon is filled with blanks, but they’re deafening and the echo of each shot is piercing. It’s over in a heartbeat.

Spooner, watching from stage left, nods. I ask him if Twelve did the right thing. “That was a good decision,” he says, adding, “The offender was pointing a gun. You don’t use a Taser at a gunfight.”

Twelve is Constable Richard Purvis, just 18 months in the job and based in the Waikato. “If someone pulls a gun, what would you do? You have to revert back to your training and you’re constantly reassessing. In that scenario, he [the intruder] had already made threats and it was pretty obvious what his intention was. If you’ve sprayed someone and they’re still coming at you, then they have hostile intent and, if they have a gun, then that hostile intent is lethal,” says Purvis, 33, who has an army background.

“It’s not only me. It’s also the people behind me in that scenario. That’s the Prime Minister. It could be real, and you have to treat it as real. At the end of the day, would I feel justified in the way I acted? Yes, I would. Obviously, no one wants to shoot someone.”

armed offenders squad

A Taser is deployed to contain an offender in this realistic-looking scenario. Other police officers are used as actors to challenge the candidates to make decisions, which they are carefully marked on.

Purvis takes some deep breaths through the pressure. He knows he’s under scrutiny, and thinks he should be. “It’s hard to not get a response when you want one, because you’re not 100% sure of what they’re trying to test you on. You’re just trying to put up your best performance. They are assessing your emotions too.”

While most people flee from danger, Purvis is convinced he’s on this planet to face it head on and defuse it. “I’m just not built for a desk job. In the police, you have high-risk situations with the worst offenders and suddenly the frontline police need help and need to call for the Armed Offenders Squad. I think our AOS performs really well… and I want to be a part of that.”

There are 352 members of the AOS, comprising 16 squads across 18 towns and cities, and covering the country 24/7. It’s an on-call job that’s additional to each operator’s everyday policing role; each district runs and deploys its own squad. In 2017, the AOS responded to 1058 callouts nationwide, including high-risk search warrants, gang activity, and any situation where firearms posed a serious threat.

Spooner knows what could lie ahead. “Life won’t be the same for them if they make it. It will be better. It’s an awesome job. It’s different to your business-as-usual police job. Nowhere else in New Zealand can you do this.”

Purvis is still not sure how he’s tracking, but can already imagine life on the squad. “It’s not about being the guy that waves guns around. You’re going out there and making a difference and you need to – because there are so many nuts situations that don’t make the news, that [police] have to deal with.”

He’s already a frontline policeman and deals with 111 callouts daily. “There’s no typical day. You can go from a family-harm event where people have had a verbal argument and it’s got a bit heated, to mental health, to aggravated robbery or a shooting. Some days are slow and we go and talk to people, or do checkpoints or prevention work, but other days you don’t stop for 10 hours.”

No two candidates vying for AOS selection make the same decision. Number 13 is up next to protect the PM, and he is visibly shaking. He appears to be over-checking his tactical options and spends some time before clipping them to his belt. When things become heated, Thirteen momentarily takes his hand off his gun, and it’s too late: the actor gets the first shot in. Thirteen is shot.

Spooner is taking mental notes while his team film the action, then assess, discuss and write up notes. Already he realises some won’t make it, and there are 11 scenarios left to test them on. “The bar is set high. It’s has to be, and some of these guys won’t get in. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad person or a bad cop. It just means this is not for them. We get some people where you can see the X-factor in them straight away. They have the spatial awareness and they make really good decisions because they see the bigger picture. That’s who we want.”

Senior Constable Campbell says there is no one decision that grants or prevents an officer entry to the AOS. All marks are tapped into a specially designed computer programme. “Everything they do on course is scored and put into a matrix. Depending on where they fall in the matrix determines whether they pass the course or simply complete it.”

The data is crunched and spits out a green, worm-style graph with areas of concern lit up in red. “We want to get people through this, but there will always be people who fall below. By Sunday, they will be physically and mentally exhausted. They will be happy to finish and hopefully think it was enjoyable when they reflect back. But there will also be people who won’t be able to remember what they’ve done because of the physical and mental fatigue.”

Each applicant has already spent a day in their district on a mini tactical selection course, which they had to pass before they could attempt the national one.

armed offenders squad

Throughout selection, every candidate must carry around heavy gear and kit as they work through various tests and exercises.

The Numbers are on the move again. They’ve fallen into lines and are running up and down hills with 10kg packs on their backs. They carry metal bars, which they’re told to treat as live firearms.

Lunch is a brief and silent affair. They inhale food from brown paper bags and suck back water at speed. Some nervously check their surroundings while in a crouched stance in the grassy quad at the college. Fatigue takes hold.

This could not be further from your standard job interview. The afternoon is littered with a series of domestic bloodbaths, hostile homeowners and frenzied dramas that unfold in seconds, all thrown at each candidate in random locations around the college: a basement garage, a nearby house, the lecture room, gymnasium. Wherever they can find space to unleash a production of hell. Cops pose as offenders – threatening and loud, forcing each officer into making split-second decisions to reach for handcuffs, baton, pepper spray, 50,000 volts, or their gun.

Former AOS senior psychologist Inspector Ian Saunders hovers nearby. He heads training within police, and is sizing up the group. “These guys are unusual in their make-up. They run towards drama, while others run away. They’re wired differently.”

Saunders was instrumental in changing the tactical selection system a decade ago, from informal and unstructured to a much slicker science. “We test their psychological make-up and personality and make sure they are fit for purpose. They’re frontline police officers, so they are low risk for having psychological issues, but we’re just looking for anything [abnormal].”

All entry-level police must be able to manage psychological stress and are fully screened. There’s a long list of disorders that could stop people becoming police, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, mood or aggression disorders, anorexia or bulimia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or suicide attempts. Police use senior clinical psychologists and psychiatrists to assess each case. A stand-down period may be required, but if mental health issues are ongoing, it will likely lead to a “medical decline” for the candidate. The psychological evaluations for the AOS go further, to ensure the squad gains only the emotionally strong and mentally fit.

A former AOS squad member himself, Saunders says it’s rare to see major concerns; he’s dealt with less than a handful of cases in several decades. “We use psychometric tools to look for risk factors directly around resilience. It’s an extraordinary role… There needs to be science behind it.”

Saunders offers ongoing support to Spooner and his team as they assess potential operators, mainly to “reassure these guys of what they’re seeing. It’s looking for behaviours, rather than trying to look into someone’s head and say how their childhood was, or anything like that. Every recruit goes through a profiling exercise when they join the police, so we know a lot about them, but we need to make sure that after exposure to the frontline, they are still really robust.”

armed offenders squad

The physical endurance of each officer is tested in a series of demanding tests.

The physical burn continues, confronting and challenging every applicant; you can read the struggle in their faces. Once in the AOS, they’ll be masked; kitted out entirely in black, with only their eyes noticeable to the outside world.

“They cover their faces to protect from flames, fire and glass, to protect from smashing windows or ramming doors. Plus, it helps with night-time concealment,” says Spooner.

It’s a look you’d think would encourage self-importance, but Spooner says there is no tolerance for ego. “They must be team players; if they’re not then we do not want them, they are simply no good to us.”

Spooner is aware image is critical. “We are really cognisant of the perception others have of us. We want to be open. We don’t want to be this elite group of alpha male-dominated coppers.”

But isn’t the Armed Offenders Squad elite? “We don’t describe ourselves like that. It sounds sexy, but that’s a phrase coined by the media. We want to be seen as humble.”

Slowly the Numbers begin to connect. Purvis steps up among a group starting to encourage others who are struggling. He’s bonding because he knows he has to. “There are too many plaques on the wall of police officers who didn’t get to go home, so you need to be part of a team... to be tight with them.”

More physical and mental challenges are about to be unleashed, including a four-hour hike with 25kg packs, after little to no sleep. Today’s programme finishes at around midnight. By 5.30am they must be lined up again awaiting instructions for another gruelling day.

“I spoke to a few guys and they said they were physically wrecked… they were struggling all the time,” says Purvis. “You get put in that hurt locker and you have to just keep going.”

Purvis is determined to make the cut – and he does. He gets a phone call three days later; Spooner tells him he is through to the month-long qualification course, where he’ll be moulded into an AOS operator. Maybe.

“The qualification course is no sure thing; it doesn’t mean you’re on the squad. If you do make it, you then go back to your district and have six months on the local squad before you are actually accepted. It’s not quick.”

It hasn’t been good news for everyone. Of the 23 who started, five haven’t made it. Two withdrew due to injury, one to sickness. A further two completed the course, but have been asked to go away and gain more experience and exposure.

Two of the three women get through. While the AOS is still a male stronghold, the number of women in the squad has more than tripled recently. Four years ago it had just three women; now there are 11, soon to be 13.

At the end of the selection process, Spooner says it’s been a privilege to lead this group of men and women through a fiercely demanding three days. “It’s important,” he says. “We all take it seriously, to ensure standards are met and preserved – also to uphold public expectations and confidence.”

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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