Police in Christchurch, New Zealand have admitted that vital information regarding the planning of the 2019 terrorist attack on two mosques was missed by dispatchers and senior officers. The revelation came during an inquest into the attacks, which resulted in the murder of 51 worshippers. An emergency call received from parliamentary services alerting the police to the attacker’s manifesto should have been treated with the highest priority and widely shared among law enforcement agencies, according to a senior police communicator. However, due to its classification as a priority 2 call, the information was overlooked, and the call was never acted upon.
Bret Watkins, who was the team leader in the Police Southern Communications Centre at the time of the attack, gave evidence during the inquest. He agreed that the first emergency call, which came from a parliamentary staffer, should have been classified as a priority 1 call. The call-taker and her supervisor believed it was appropriate to label it as a national security event with a priority 2 status. Watkins admitted that he should have acted on the call and upgraded its priority to ensure it received the attention it deserved.
The lack of action on the call meant that important information regarding the potential danger to the Linwood mosque was overlooked. Watkins stated that due to the high number of priority 1 firearms events occurring at the time, the information from the call was missed. He agreed with the assertion that this vital information should have been shouted from the rooftops. The inquest also revealed issues with the communication systems between the police and St John Ambulance, with frustration over their poor integration.
Watkins suggested several improvements to the current systems in place. He stated that the computer system used in the communications center was outdated and needed to be replaced. Upgrades and better integration between the police and ambulance services were necessary. Watkins mentioned that incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) could be helpful in assessing the risk and prioritizing emergency calls. Other countries have successfully implemented AI systems to assist emergency communicators.
The ongoing inquest will continue to examine ten key issues over a six-week period. It aims to address the shortcomings in communication, response, and prioritization of emergency calls during the Christchurch attacks. The revelations from this inquiry will likely lead to reforms and improvements in the systems and processes used by law enforcement agencies to prevent future tragic events.