31 Oct 2019

Petition urges police to scrap armed response units

From Checkpoint, 5:27 pm on 31 October 2019

A Pasifika mother of two has helped launch a petition urging police to scrap their armed response pilot, saying she's worried about her community's future if it becomes permanent.

The units, made up of blacked out police SUVs and armed officers, have been put into Counties Manukau, Waikato, and Canterbury for six months.

They were launched nearly two weeks ago but now there's been a push to force a rethink.

News of the Armed Response police teams immediately raised red flags for Melissa Lama.

"To put them in heavily populated Māori and Pacific communities, you couldn't be any more obvious," she told Checkpoint.

"With two young boys, I'm very concerned and very scared.

Ms Lama has helped launch a petition asking for the police minister to stop the trial, and instead open a dialogue with the communities these teams will be operating in. 

Nearly 2000 people have signed the online petition in the last seven days.

A source has told Checkpoint that police have admitted that the armed response teams haven't had the racial bias training needed to effectively guard and protect areas with diverse populations.

Counties Manukau District has a very high percentage of youth compared to other districts, for example, and the police website says it was home to a multitude of ethnicities that require a provision that "meets the specific needs of these groups".

Ms Lama said she was worried that racial bias was still present in policing - giving an example of a community event she's recently been involved in.

"During the Mate Ma'a Tonga visit in Christchurch ... we had it in a local pack in Hoon Hay ... there was a lot of pacific people who came to this community day."

But she said attendees had questioned why police had shown up.

"Were they there to police us or were they there to keep the community safe?"

On the other hand, Ms Lama said there had been some great steps that have improved the relationship between police and Māori and Pasifika communities.

But she said this pilot was a big step back - especially given that many still remember events like the dawn raids of the 1970s. 

In an effort to arrest illegal overstayers at the time, police came down hard on Pacific communities.

"They were policing anyone who was brown, and anyone who could have been an overstayer," she said.

And she said the impact of that was still felt today.

"I remember my parents, especially mum, telling me 'don't ever look at them'."

Experts overseas think that there are going to be serious problems with sending armed units routinely into neighbourhoods.

Professor Jonathan Mummolo of Princeton University in the United States has extensively researched the pros and cons of arming police.

His research was conducted following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

"What the evidence shows is that using these types of militarised used as a matter of routine can be problematic," he said.

"They are not lowering crime, they are not keeping officers safer on average and then the public reception that results from using militarise police is pretty negative in terms of what they think of law enforcement."

He said New Zealand police needed to be very careful how the units were used.

"A theme across the US when these sorts of units have been adopted is that they are adopted on the message they are going to be used in emergency situations and then they end up using routinely.

"That is something I would caution police agencies to think about - are you really just reserving this for emergencies? And have you thought through the consequences in terms of how people perceive the police if you start to use them routinely?"

Ms Lama is hoping her petition will get the government and police to rethink things, and come up with other options.

Police refused Checkpoint's interview request, but said in a statement they were aware that some people might have concerns about the deployment of Armed Response Teams.

They did not comment on any concerns being raised about the lack of bias training.