Friday, July 31, 2015

On arming the police

Last year when people were questioning whether police forces in the United States have become too militarized, the president of New Zealand’s police association (NZPA)  called for our police to be “fully armed”. He claimed that incidents that might require a police having to use a fire arm are not “isolated” incidents.

At the time I found myself with questions. Questions that I have not seen any answers to. Either crime is dropping or this stuff is not isolated. They can’t both be true. And what does it mean to be fully armed? Just a gun? Or do we want to head towards US-style militarized police?
Someone went on a “psychotic episode” according the president – and Mr. O’Conor’s response was that police need to have guns. Wouldn’t the cost of arming our police officers be better spent in mental healthcare services? When tasers were brought up, he said “Tasers are never an option against any scenario involving a firearm”. However yesterday, it was announced that tasers can now be carried by those who are trained at all times on-duty. Police Commissioner Mike Bush thinks that the feedback from frontline staff merits this change, which will lead to more effective “staff and public safety”.

Last year O’Conor said that apparently our “police officers are already in danger” and it’s only a matter of time when something worse will happen. So basically his advice was we should transition from a routinely unarmed police force to an armed one because of something that might happen. I wouldn’t call that effective or evidence based policy-making.

At the time Mr. O’ Conor also claimed that New Zealand police officers are shot at greater numbers proportionally compared to Australia. Well that’s not good. But I’d like to see the numbers. What is he basing that on? I don’t recall anyone asking him what the actual number is. Then the Police Commissioner said that arming the police would change their relationship with the public beyond repair, and it was incorrect to say that the Police Association was talking on behalf of all police staff. So I did a little bit of a digging (not comprehensive) to see what work has been done on arming of the police. There’s lots of stories on the UK but it’s really hard to find a lot of substantive information.
Ross Hendy at the University of Cambridge is looking into routinely unarmed police officers and their police-citizen interactions in England, New Zealand, and Norway for his PhD. He also wrote an article in the Policing Journal looking at Scandinavian experience of routinely armed and unarmed police in the context of New Zealand’s on-going arming conversation. In his paper he mentions that a survey of the NZPA in 2010 found that 72% wanted to be armed – decreasing to 63% in 2013. Yet news articles have reported that the NZPA unanimously wanted to be armed. Which is it?

Hendy surveyed Scandinavian police officers and Norwegians – who like the Kiwis have their guns in their cars – had interesting perspectives. The whole article was interesting, but here’s what one Norwegian officer said:
“We have, as you may know, the firearms … with us in the cars. It take[s] me less than a minute to take them out and be ready to use them. In my opinion the most sufficient argument is that it gives us time to think instead of getting the sidearm on the hip and just running in to solve a case … As a result of not thinking over the situation, they [are] getting into [a situation where] they will be forced to use their firearm instead of using time to think. It’s not that much time I am talking about, maybe a minute, two minutes, three minutes; maybe we get some assistance as four officers are a better job than two. … It’s important for the mental preparation…”
The article goes on to analyze how the arming is more about the police feeling safe rather than actually being safe. What still remains are many questions as to what we want from our police and what our country needs. Should arming the police be our priority or are other changes within NZ Police more important? Police culture? Their interaction with the public? At present the discussion is about tasers and not guns and this from lawyer Graeme Edgeler is useful: 
The public needs to understand the power that the state can wield via the police. The police need to understand the limitations of that power. All of this has to happen in the context of public safety. Perhaps recent news about US Police’s interaction with the public clouds my judgement but with police brutality constantly in the news, one cannot be too cautious.

Some articles I read for this blog:

A version of this blogpost first appeared on on October 29, 2014

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