29 May 2020

Documents reveal serious lack of consultation before police armed response teams launched

From Checkpoint, 5:17 pm on 29 May 2020

Documents obtained by Checkpoint have revealed numerous issues and a serious lack of consultation before the launch of the Police's Armed Response Teams.

The trials were launched in Counties Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury, last year in response to the Christchurch mosque attacks.

But internal documents, obtained under the Official Information Act, detail numerous issues.

It comes after prominent Māori have been quick to condemn the police's Armed Response Team [ART] trials.

The documents show a major risk identified by the working group overseeing the trial was that ARTs could be seen to disadvantage Māori.

Police even proposed holding bias training with officers to mitigate that risk.

"We are yet to address institutional racism in the New Zealand Police. We know there are officers out there – it's been in news reports. We know this has been a long, entrenched problem in the New Zealand Police for a very long time," New Zealand Māori Council executive director Matthew Tukaki told Checkpoint.

"It has not been resolved, it has not been addressed where any reasonable person would think that a police force should be fair, equitable and unbiased."

The trials wrapped up in April, but Tukaki is worried Armed Response Teams could become permanent, and is concerned about what this could mean for his people.

"I remember the dark days when the Samoan, Pacific Island community were being targeted by immigration officers as well," Tukaki said.

"Have we not learnt the lessons of where we went wrong before? I would argue strongly we've got a lot more lessons to learn if we can't even get this one right."

A police communications plan released to Checkpoint under the Official Information Act identifies the risk of ARTs being seen as a new force to use against Māori.

It goes on to say this can be mitigated by actively working with communities, partners and the justice sector to improve outcomes for Māori.

But Tutaki has other ideas.

"It's about the individuals who made the decision that thought it was acceptable to trial something with no evidence, no strategic direction, no good governance over the whole thing or even consultation with Māori.

"So the New Zealand government and NZ Police were very clear what the mood of the NZ Māori Council was. It also begs the question – we have nearly 1,000 Māori Wardens out there who also have significant powers and are warranted. They are the people we could have a look at activating more to help with incidents where they involve Māori whānau and communities."

Armed Response teams were introduced following the deadly Christchurch mosque shootings last March.

But another document reveals New Zealand Police undertook limited consultation with Māori and consultation with Muslim communities was also limited.

All of this has Tukaki questioning why the trials went ahead at all.

"It is absolutely silly that the risk assessment that was made didn't stop this whole thing from happening at the beginning until they had worked out what their overall strategic plan was.

"But no, somebody thought it was a good idea and off they went," he said.

NZ Police declined to be interviewed on the issue, but Police Association President Chris Cahill said NZ Police should be criticised for its poor attempt at consultation.

"I certainly think it's a fair criticism that due to the quick introduction of these, insufficient consultation was done. Not just with Māori but with the wider community as well, and that's necessary that should take place.

However, he believes ARTs will ultimately help, not hurt, Māori.

"I think it's also very important to remember Māori aren't only over-represented in crime statistics, but also very much over-represented in victimisations.

"And these firearms are being used disproportionately against Māori and other minority ethnic communities, so they're being protected by these ARTs as well," Cahill said.

"And it's worth remembering throughout the trial of ARTs, no officer had to shoot someone, but they did resolve a number of serious incidents safely, and that is a big plus for the trial."

Police documents also show ARTs are meant to be focused on callouts where there is significant risk to staff or public.

Police refused to release all documents related to the trial, but an incident report for its first two months show officers mostly followed up on cars or vehicles acting suspiciously.

Despite that, Cahill said there is a need for Armed Response Teams, claiming police are dealing with more firearms incidents than ever before.

"I think the issue we have also is with the change in environment the AOS model of staff being called out, having to go to a base, equip themselves then travel to a scene, has serious limitations.

"Having staff available with expertise and equipment to attend immediately is advantageous. But that has probably not been communicated very well."

Cahill said the problem has been with communication around the specialist squad being involved in common tasks like assisted search warrants.

"The model of having them waiting around like a fire brigade for a fire simply doesn't work in the police environment. They need to be deployed 24/7 while they are actually working."

An October 2019 briefing paper shows even before the trial started police were already expecting it would show ARTs improved officers' ability to respond to the most serious of jobs, while also minimising risks to the public.

But a police spokeswoman said it is premature to determine what the evaluation might find.

New Zealand Police will release its evaluation in June.