An open letter to the police in a time of Covid-19

3:50 pm on 30 March 2020

Opinion - Dear New Zealand Police, Aotearoa has not given you a blank cheque for your response to Covid-19.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

These are unprecedented times and the government on 25 March made a State of National Emergency declaration - only the second time in New Zealand history that this has been done.

Authorities now have the power to close roads and public places; regulate land, water and air traffic; evacuate any premises; and bar people or vehicles from any premises or places.

It is hard to get our heads around the extent of these powers. They are not something most New Zealanders have ever imagined.

Despite that, most Kiwis understand and accept the decisions the government has made. An overwhelming majority of the population has accepted massive restrictions on daily life and the sweeping away of civil liberties and freedoms.

You, the New Zealand police, will be the most visible figures exercising and enforcing the new emergency powers. Police Commissioner Mike Bush explained this by saying that people would be greeted by the "friendly face" of the police during the four-week lockdown.

But, already, there is cause for concern.

A number of instances of what appears to have been heavy-handedness on your part have been reported and there also appears to be a lack of consistency in the way you are exercising your powers.

New Zealanders realise that it is extremely frustrating for you to deal with numerous people who are flouting the lockdown and refusing to comply. But it is not legal for you to come down hard on people simply because you are annoyed that enforcing the lockdown places your own health at risk.

Similarly, it is understandable that Bush said it would pay for essential workers to carry work identity cards or letters from their employers.

That makes it quick and easy for the police to see that someone should be out and about. However, you need to remember that there is no legal obligation for any New Zealander to carry such information. That means that people cannot be forced to carry such documents and it is not an offence to fail to do so.

You and other agencies need to swiftly standardise your advice about the fine detail of when people can and cannot leave their homes. Your bosses must then ensure that all staff on the ground are clear about the rules.

You need to remember that you can only police the country effectively with the consent of the public.

Contradictory messages and over-the-top enforcement will rapidly erode public goodwill and result in increasing failure to comply.

In turn, that will raise the spectre of order starting to break down. New Zealand does not want to go there.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

You need look no further than the six-month trial of armed police patrols, which began in Counties Manukau, Canterbury and the Waikato on 28 October to understand why some New Zealanders are worried about the way you are exercising the pandemic emergency powers. When the pilot was announced, Bush told the public that the changed operating environment since the Canterbury mosque shootings, the impact of methamphetamine-fuelled offending and the growth in organised crime were the reasons for establishing the rapid reaction armed teams.

But figures released in early March 2020 showed that the units were deployed 75 times a day in their first five weeks. That is a staggering figure and means the teams were called out at 50 times the rate that Armed Offenders Squads were last year.

It is extremely hard to credit that this is necessary.

The public was accordingly already anxious about mission creep in your use of armed teams. The sudden conferral of wide-ranging new powers on officers arising from Covid-19 exacerbates that worry.

For Māori, the concern is even greater as they are subjected to more stops, arrests, detention and charges in normal times than other New Zealanders are.

You, the police, are there to uphold the law. New Zealand is a democracy. It is not a police state.

We, the public, will obey the new laws. But we will also be policing your use of them.

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