Crime in the City: Kiwi cops with guns – What do the public really want?

A new Herald poll reveals how the public really feels about New Zealand police officers carrying guns.

The NZ Herald-Kantar poll found 53 per cent of people believe the time has come for our police to be armed. Just under a third, 32 per cent, were against it.

When broken down further, slightly more men were in favour than women and people in Canterbury – where gunman Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people during the 2019 mosque terror attacks – were the most supportive of it.

By age, Gen X and older millennials were the most likely to want to see police carrying guns.

The poll of 1001 people was taken a few weeks after Eli Epiha was found guilty of trying to murder Constable David Goldfinch and murdering Constable Matthew Hunt during a routine traffic stop in West Auckland.

It also comes as frontline officers are attending an increasing number of firearm-related jobs, including a recent armed carjacking of two innocent motorists in Penrose and a gang turf war in Counties Manukau which has resulted in people being shot and homes riddled with bullets.

The results are no surprise to Police Association president Chris Cahill who says they are consistent with organisation’s own polling, which has had public support sitting over 50 per cent for all but one of the last 12 years.

“It sort of blows the myth that there’s a big anti-public view of general arming which I think is an important part of the debate.I think what it really reflects is that New Zealanders are now seeing the firearms violence, it’s so prevalent now and they can’t ignore it. It’s not just the police that are seeing what’s happening behind closed doors.”

The Herald poll follows a Police Association survey in May that found 73 per cent of all officers, 77 per cent of frontline staff and 79 per cent of road policing officers wanted to be armed.

Cahill believes New Zealand is heading in the direction of an armed force but said there are different models that can be considered.

An example was having officers carrying guns only when there is a known or possible threat but not when they are doing low-risk jobs like walking around a mall or on school visits.

“You can have a form of general arming that doesn’t mean every cop is walking around town with a gun on their hip all the time.

“That’s the conversations that need to be had. If New Zealand is going to increase access to firearms for police what would that look like and what would be both safe for police and tolerable for the public. I think that survey shows there’s not a blanket no (to arming).”

However, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster is not swayed by the findings. Coster has the power to arm officers but he’s not convinced the time has come for it.

“It’s a completely understandable response with everything that has been going on to feel that police should be armed and if I believed that it would make people safer then I’d be advocating for it too.

“For every incident we can point to where it would make people safer we can also point to others where it would have made it worse, particularly occasions where we have been able to withdraw and arrest another day, rather than escalating [the situation]”.

However, Coster acknowledged some sort of change was needed and said he was looking at ways of improving safety including how to reduce the risk for officers undertaking traffic stops.

The options include better frontline training and looking at the way police assess risk and how officers are deployed.

He’s also considering having more specially trained officers available to deal with the “most difficult” incidents straight away, rather than having to wait for AOS officers.

“It’s well advanced and obviously all of these things have a cost attached and so that’s something that we need to understand, and make sure we can cover it. Before we are committed we are having a conversation with our minister who has asked for options.

“I’d like us to be making some announcements soon because clearly there is a desire from our people to see change and we feel the urgency of that.”

None of the big political parties support fully arming police. Te Pāti Māori and the Greens are worried about the impact on Māori and Pacific communities.

“I bet if you asked all Māori, you would get a different response. We know for a fact that arming police will mean more Māori deaths,” said Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi.

Act’s justice and firearms spokeswoman, Nicole McKee, said while police needed better access to firearms and training, arming officers would only lead to escalation and make the public more susceptible to being caught in a gunfight.

National wants to see a return to Armed Response Teams – special police vehicles carrying trained armed officers out on patrol -a scheme that was abandoned after a six-month trial in 2020.

Police Minister Poto Williams said she had never supported the routine arming of police.

She said officers had access to firearms if they needed them but becoming fully armed would “fundamentally alter the nature of the relationship the NZ public has with police: trusted, approachable, not a force to be feared”.

The NZ Herald-Kantar poll is based on a survey of 1001 people taken betweenJuly 29 and August 4. The margin of error is 3.1 per cent.

CRIME IN THE CITY – THE SERIES
Friday:
What’s behind the rise in violent crime
On the beat in Auckland City
I was punched in the face by a drunk stranger
Saturday: The booze problem
Sunday: The impact on business
Monday:
The cost to the health system
Victim’s long road to recovery
Tuesday: The scourge of robbery
Wednesday: The solutions

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