Armed police: Is it time to get tough?

As growing numbers of front-line officers are attacked and firearm crime increases, some think the police have gone soft on offenders. But are more guns the answer?By Janet Wilson.

It’s easy to believe that the police have gone soft on crime when you look at their treatment of rule breakers over successive lockdowns. First, there was Northland iwi-led roadblocks in March 2020, sometimes without a police presence in sight, intimidating, harassing and illegally detaining people on the roadside. Then, just recently, the lack of immediate arrests at the Destiny Church-linked anti-lockdown demonstrations in Auckland, not to forget the exuberant twerkers at the scorned North Shore party.

In the last two instances, police eventually prosecuted offenders but only after criticism that they were slow to act. Last April, the Northland roadblock denouement was played out in Parliament’s epidemic response committee, chaired by Tauranga MP and former Crown prosecutor Simon Bridges, who used the opportunity to attack Aotearoa’s top cop.

“There’s no scenario – this is law school 101 – in which a Kiwi is acting anything but unlawfully by stopping another Kiwi on a road in New Zealand,” Bridges asserted, to which Police Commissioner Andrew Coster replied that there was “nothing unlawful” about the roadblocks and operators were abiding by the regulations and had a police presence.

Fourteen years ago, public perception of the police was the opposite. In 2007, when 300 officers, including armed offenders squad and special tactics group members, launched raids in the Urewera Ranges and as far south as Christchurch in response to intelligence that Māori were organising paramilitary training camps against the state, hundreds of people subsequently demonstrated, claiming police brutality.

The raids resulted in 18 arrests but only four convictions and echoed similar police actions against Māori at Parihaka in 1881 and Maungapōhatu in 1916. Four of those arrested — the only ones to go to trial — were also charged under the Crimes Act with participating in an organised criminal group. The jury could not agree on that charge. But the four were convicted on firearms charges. Two were sentenced to jail, the others to home detention. The Independent Police Conduct Authority found the Urewera raids were justified but that the police acted unlawfully in detaining the occupants of five properties.

The Human Rights Commission also later found that people had their rights contravened when they were illegally searched and detained. In 2014, then-Police Commissioner Mike Bush formally apologised to Ngāi Tūhoe for the raids and a settlement was reached with the iwi.

Since then, society’s ills have only increased, with rising gang numbers, methamphetamine endemic in communities and increasing numbers of mental health patients in crisis. Yet under Coster, the country’s 33rd commissioner, communities perceive a seemingly softer, more compliant police service.

For Coster, whose Christian faith guides him in all he does, policing by consent is at the heart of the service. “We’re far too small to impose order,” he says. “We need there to be order and then we police around the edges. Everything we do relies on the community. Whether it’s coming forward to report an offence, providing us with information about what happened, working with us to address needs in families, needs in communities – none of that occurs unless we have the community on board.”

Deep divisions

Police Association president Chris Cahill agrees with the policing-by-consent model – however, there’s a “but” attached to it: “I think the question that we probably have to ask is what do the public want from a modern police service? And police have an operating model of prevention first. And while I’m supportive of that, I think the question has to be asked: is it delivering everything the public want from it?”

If anything is illustrative of the face of modern policing, it is its customer satisfaction survey. Last year, the survey revealed that 77 per cent of the public had full or quite a lot of trust and confidence in the police, well below the service’s 2019/20 target of 90 per cent. Trust among Māori was 12 points down at 65 per cent, with youth and victims at 72 per cent and 73 per cent, respectively. A cursory glance at the 2020 Police Annual Report reveals that when it comes to enforcement, the cash and assets police seized from gangs and criminals were worth nearly $375 million – short of their 2021 target of $500 million.

Still, the police-have-gone-soft narrative persists, driven by such events as the death of 28-year-old Matthew Hunt, gunned down after a routine traffic stop in West Auckland in June last year. His death, the first police officer killed in 11 years, highlighted the deep divisions within the service when it comes to general arming. The Police Association favours the move.

Cahill believes that since Hunt’s death, there’s “been a real change in the police, in police front-line views”. Coster doesn’t believe it’s the answer. “I don’t believe that general arming is the right direction for New Zealand police,” he says. “When we look at the evidence, what we see is that it doesn’t support routine arming of the front line, for their safety or for the safety of the community.”

Coster’s thinking, while at odds with many of his serving officers, is clearly in line with that of Police Minister Poto Williams and the Government. Cahill says there’s a reason for that. “I think the first thing that you have to recognise is the police operate in the current political environment. There is no appetite politically or from the commissioner or his executive at a personal level for general arming. So, everything was on the table, bar general arming.”

That chasm in opinion among police is clearly seen in the association’s biennial Nielsen IQ survey of nearly 6000 of its 11,000 members. It found that 70 per cent of the total sample supported general arming, the highest figure since the survey began in 2010, with 57 per cent of the public in support of public arming. Support among constabulary officers was 73 per cent, possibly because 13 per cent of them had been threatened with a firearm in the previous 12 months. Among road policing units, the figure was higher again, at 79 per cent.

“They’re massive numbers. They’re numbers that can’t really be ignored,” says Cahill. And the reason is simple: “If you look at the history, they actually turn out to be some of the most dangerous incidents police attend, because you often don’t know who is in that vehicle or how they’re going to respond.”

With an increase in the numbers of front-line cops attacked by an offender in the past 12 months (38 per cent, compared with 35 per cent in 2019), it’s easy to see why they are calling for general arming. But the senior ranks are less sure, with more opposition among senior levels: 56 per cent of those ranked inspector or above are against it, along with 30 per cent of senior sergeants.

Cahill says there are two main reasons for those figures. “One is that many of them are off the street and so they’re reflecting how they remember it was like on the front line, whereas the younger officers are seeing it differently. The second thought is that probably they also understand that putting a gun on a hip isn’t a simple answer. You’ve got the risks that come with that.”

When it comes to his front-line staff, Coster is empathetic but emphatic. “It’s completely understandable for our people – when they imagine themselves on the wrong end of a firearm – to want to be generally armed. It really is.

“But my responsibility as the com­missioner is to look at what will make our people safest in the round, and I’m really clear that the settings that we’ve adopted are the most appropriate thing that we can do now to make our people as safe they can be.”

Guns, guns, guns

What’s driving the campaign for the general arming of the police is the increasing use of guns in this country. GunPolicy.org, a website hosted by the Sydney School of Public Health and dedicated to preventing armed violence, firearm law and gun control, puts the number of guns in New Zealand citizens’ hands, both legal and illegal, at between 1.2 million and 1.5 million.

“The biggest difference you’re now seeing is that the public are witnessing it because there are the open events of people now getting shot, of offenders with firearms involving the public, that we’re now seeing,” says Cahill. “The big change is the willingness of criminals to actually pull the trigger.”

The March 15, 2019, terror attack in Christ­church has seen the introduction of two sets of legislation to deal with the issue. The first bans assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons, and the second, designed to introduce a gun registry, has been passed but remains unimplemented. Coster thinks police have to prevent lawful firearms becoming illicit either through theft or through the gangs.

One retired police officer who believes police should be armed is Ray van Beynen. A former head of the Auckland armed offenders squad, he helped train Andrew Coster as a squad member and wrote the official AOS history, Zero Alpha.

He says he has changed his mind on general arming because criminals are more willing to take on the police and because the incidents of firearms crime have increased dramatically. “We’ve got a lot of these professional gang members coming over from Australia, who are much more violent and much more inclined to use weapons. You’ve got the continued increase in the use and supply of methamphetamine and the impacts that has on people’s decision-making when they’re using firearms.”

Van Beynen cites the police’s obligation under WorkSafe legislation, where legally they must give officers the tools to protect themselves. “Take away the emotion of ‘oh, we shouldn’t have armed police and guns’, but just think about a firearm as another piece of protective equipment where it’s no different to their gloves, their long batons, their pepper spray, their handcuffs, their rubber gloves – even their face masks during Covid-related deployments.

“All these items must be immediately available in the event they are required. To not make a firearm immediately available to them is a very poor piece of decision-making. And it’s not being done for operational reasons but for political reasons.”

Van Beynen says change will come only “if something else catastrophic happens”.
“That’s a terrible thing to have to say, but that’s the reality — that police officers will be shot at again and shot and killed. And what is it going to take? Are police officers more likely to be targeted? Possibly, but then they will be better able to defend themselves.”

As a former police officer with 40 years’ experience in the force, did he think there is a perception in the community that the police have gone soft on crime? “There is a perception in some quarters that that is the case.”

Tactical response

Data supplied to RNZ under the Official Information Act backs van Beynen’s claims, revealing that in 2019, New Zealand had its highest rate of gun crime and deaths involving firearms for nearly a decade. That year, offenders were found with guns on 3450 occasions, with the number of guns seized up almost 50 per cent to 1263 since 2014. Despite that, police presented arms only 314 times.

Coster’s answer to those rising gun figures and the subsequent anxiety they induce in the rank-and-file is a $45 million funding package, which will include a doubling of front-line staff training from 3.5 to 7.5 days a year, double-crew dog-handler teams and the formation of a 78-person tactical response team based in main centres. They will be given armed offenders squad training and will support front-line investigation work on planned operations, as well as being available to support front-line staff, if called on.

Coster says the main rationale for the tactical response teams – or tactical prevention teams – is that they’ll have greater flexibility than the armed offenders squad (AOS).

“Sometimes [the AOS is] not called, when ideally they could be. And other times they just arrive a bit late, and it leaves the front line dealing with some of the most difficult situations without that support. So, that is a gap, and this is a solution that will address that.”

Cahill thinks the new model is based on what police officers said they wanted “and that was identified by a lot of the incidents that were occurring”. He praises the Frontline Safety Improvement Programme, instituted not long after Matthew Hunt’s death, which will be extended, but has doubts over the tactical response teams’ overall effectiveness.

“They could be effective in some areas where they’re deployed, but there’s going to be a number of areas that simply don’t have the resources to deploy them. And that’s the biggest criticism of this. What does it do for the smaller provincial centres, rural New Zealand? One-, two-, three-person stations, those sorts of things – there’s nothing in that for them.”

There’s a good reason the tactical response model might sound familiar. it’s the pared-down version of the controversial armed response teams (ARTs), which had a six-month trial in Counties-Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury between late 2019 and 2020.

Fully armed 24/7 and clad in dark blue uniforms, ARTs drove large dark-coloured SUVs that gave the impression they were more military than your average cop on the beat.

They were designed, like the tactical response teams, to be more flexible than their AOS cousins to answer critical or high-risk incidents. Instead, ARTs faced a barrage of criticism, including mass demonstrations sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement and a petition to Parliament calling for them to be disbanded. Critics cited the fact that the teams were attending call-outs to children as young as 12 and that team members were not doing the necessary record-keeping during the trial. Finally, in one of his first major public decisions as commissioner, Coster pulled the plug on the trials in June 2020, declaring they would not be part of the New Zealand policing model. Eighteen months later, he is unequivocal about the decision.

“It’s just the way we went about it led to an understandable outcry from certainly large sections of our community.” That police were routinely armed and even named “armed response teams” put an emphasis on arming when that wasn’t the point of the trial, he says.

“It was about having the right kind of capability available for the right kind of incidents that needed that response.” He says the decision to put them in a different vehicle “that you might argue looked a bit more sinister” was also wrong.

Doesn’t this mean he is effectively agreeing with his opponents, such as the Greens, who characterised the ARTs as New Zealand’s version of a military police force?

“No,” says Coster. “I understood the perception and I could see that it was not something that we were going to be able to fix under that model that had been launched. And that we needed to run through a fuller process to understand the gap and to come up with a solution that met the need without offending the community sense of what policing in New Zealand is all about.”

The ARTs "worked"

The Police Association’s Cahill has the opposite view; he thinks the trial worked. “The proof was in the pudding that in the whole of the six-month deployment, these ARTs didn’t fire one shot. So, they worked.”

What’s more, he believes ARTs are worthy of another look, claiming there was a lot of misunderstanding.

“It got tied up in the whole Black Lives Matter that was very prominent across the world at the time. And this came across as a group of armed police targeting Māori and Pacific communities.

“I don’t believe that was true, but the reality was they were deployed in Māori and Pacific communities – yes, they were – because that is where the victims of firearms crime live, unfortunately.”

The police have a general model of cordon, contain and control a scene, he says. “That’s what these people were experts in. The alternative is that you have lesser-trained officers – normally younger, with less experience – turn up at these incidents and have to take charge. So, which would you prefer?”

What the commissioner and the Police Association president do agree on, though, is that what signifies modern policing is the use of various agencies to help reduce reoffending. This includes programmes such as Te Pae Oranga Iwi Community Panels, which are a partnership between police and iwi around the country. They’re designed for people from all walks of life who may have issues and want to get their lives back on track, instead of being sent to the courts.

“There’s a 22 per cent reduction in harm from reoffending, compared with the equivalent court process, so it’s a no-brainer,” says Coster.

It’s all about preventing future harm.

“It’s also about recognising that we deal with human problems and how can we hope to prevent those problems unless we understand the human beings in front of us?”

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