Kawerau family mourn loss of man shot by police

Keeri Hooper still clearly remembers seeing the confusion in her older brother’s eyes shortly before police fatally shot him.

She believed she could have got through to him if she were allowed to talk to him during the short stand-off with police that ended in his death.

“He just didn’t have to be killed. There were chances, I was there and they didn’t allow me to speak to him. I was like, ‘I am not afraid’, he wasn’t going to do anything.”

It has been more than two years since that fateful day in the Eastern Bay of Plenty in February 2019 when police shot Astin Hooper.

His Kawerau-based whānau are still grieving.

For them, there are still many unanswered questions surrounding his death, despite a recent Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) report into the tragedy.

They are struggling to find closure.

“We just want to be his voice,” said Hooper’s nan, Alison Rangiaho. “We just want closure, we all loved him.”

Sharon Marama Hooper, married to Astin Hooper’s dad Dean, and who had raised Astin since he was 4, said, in her view: “He was done wrong by, absolutely wrong by. He didn’t have a chance.”

The IPCA found the actions of two Armed Offenders Squad (AOS) members leading up to the fatal shooting of Hooper on Onepu Springs Rd, just out of Kawerau, were unjustified.

It said although the two AOS officers were acting in self-defence when they fired at Hooper immediately after he shot at them, their prior actions were not justified in the circumstances overall.

The officers escalated the situation by driving past an existing cordon towards Hooper, which resulted in him firing at them, the report said.

The IPCA found that the AOS officers were legally justified in shooting Hooper in self-defence, however, before that became necessary they should have stopped at the cordon and sought to de-escalate the situation by communicating with Hooper.

Authority chairman, Judge Colin Doherty, said the police response should have afforded him a “greater opportunity” to reconsider his actions and surrender.

Thursday, February 21, 2019, started like any other morning for the Kawerau family.

“He woke up in the morning, had a shave, a shower and a coffee.It was just like a normal morning,” Sharon Hooper said.

“He was back here just to try and get himself back on track. It was safe here.”

Sharon said that after dropping Hooper’s brothers off at school, she and Dean were having coffee on the front porch.

After heading inside, they heard a gunshot on the property.

“We ran out and that was when he just jumped in the truck. He changed just like that. It was a shock – and he just took off. That was the last time I saw him,” she said.

She immediately rang police after Hooper had left the property.

“The police came up here, they stayed here with me and Dean.”

A written statement by the IPCA said that in the lead-up to the shooting, Hooper had stolen a shotgun and ute from his father’s home.

He robbed the Kawerau Credit Union about 9am.

It said local officers found Hooper in the ute about 40 minutes later.

“He chased their police car twice around a truck turning bay before driving off. Shortly afterwards, police caught up to the ute and began pursuing Mr Hooper.”

It said at 10.21am, Hooper stopped the ute on the side of Onepu Springs Rd.

Two police cars stopped behind him, keeping a distance of about 100m. A third police car stopped about 80m away on the other side, creating a cordon in an attempt to contain him.

The statement said very shortly afterwards, two AOS officers drove past the police vehicles and towards the ute, intending to arrest Hooper. As they approached, they saw him pointing a firearm towards them from within the ute.

It said the AOS officers stopped and took cover by their vehicle, aiming their rifles at Hooper and calling on him to surrender.

According to the IPCA, Hooper then fired the shotgun once towards the AOS officers. They fired nine shots back.

The statement said he suffered five gunshot wounds and, despite receiving first aid within a minute of being shot, died at the scene.

Hooper’s sister Keeri, who lived in Te Teko at the time of the shooting, said she saw him just before he was shot. She believed she would have been able to help de-escalate the situation.

“I just got the call, and I pulled out of my driveway. This was on the Te Teko Rd, going to Edgecumbe, he was coming and I saw my dad’s truck.

“There were like 10 police cars behind him and he was going very slow. I pulled over, got out of my car, and was waving him down.”

According to Keeri, Hooper then stopped the car. “He was looking at me confused.”

“I rang my dad, and Dad was like ‘tell them that you can stop him’. She said police wouldn’t allow it.

Keeri said she then drove around to the other side of the cordon, but by then her brother was dead.

“I just saw him lying on the ground, with a thing already over him.”

Keeri and Sharon wanted to know why they had not been able to view footage of Hooper firing a shot at the officers.

They said they were also concerned he was left to lie out on the road for several hours after the incident.

“He lay there for 12 hours on the road. No one was allowed in. We went there at about 10.30 that night – and he was already in the car. I just don’t understand what they were doing for 12 hours.”

A police spokesperson said police had acknowledged the IPCA’s findings in relation to the fatal shooting of Hooper, and their thoughts remained with his whānau for their loss.

As the matter was currently before the coroner, the release of any footage or other material relating to the incident would be for the coroner to decide.

The spokesperson said any further comment could only be made after the coronial proceedings.

Bay of Plenty police district commander Superintendent Andy McGregor said in a written statement that given Hooper’s actions earlier in the day, officers had reason to believe he continued to pose a threat.

McGregor said although there were always a number of ways to deal with any situation, officers were trained to use the TENR risk assessment tool to determine their actions.

“We train and trust our staff to make judgment calls each and every day.

“In this instance, we had an offender with a firearm who was in a vehicle, who could have at any point attempted to flee, potentially firing shots towards our staff and subsequently other people.

“Our officers’ priority was to take him into custody as quickly and efficiently as possible, to limit the harm he may have caused,” McGregor said.

Astin Hooper – a 'real softie'

Sharon described Astin Hooper, a patched mongrel mob member, as a “real softie” who loved his family.

“We know Astin.He was a real softie, he loved his nans, his koro, he was a good dad.”

She said previous news reports had painted a “whole different picture” of Hooper.

“He was awesome – he would always come back here to just be around Dad. He would give you anything, even if he had nothing. That was our Astin.”

Hooper, who died at age 29, had attended Kawerau College and previously worked as a scaffolder and at the meatworks. He also had a twin sister, Shiloh, who lived in Christchurch.

Family support was helping them get through the tough times, said Sharon.

“We have an awesome family, and a huge family. We have very good family support,” she said.

Keeri said Hooper’s father, Dean, was “broken”. The pair had got along particularly well, she said.

“He is broken. He never really speaks about it. Dad was like his safe place. Astin needed his father, even though he was 29,” she said.

Sharon’s said when they buried Hooper, she thought: “Here you go boy – you can just rest now.”

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