2 Mar 2019

More officers support arming police

7:57 am on 2 March 2019

More and more police are in support of arming their own, Police Association figures show.

Police generic

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Sixty-six percent of assocation members supported general arming in a 2017 survey, up 6 percent on 2015 and up 18 percent on 2008, when only 48 percent of police employees were in favour.

Christchurch police have announced frontline staff will remain armed until a wanted man is found. Police Association president Chris Cahill earlier said their arming could spell the beginning of officers routinely carrying firearms.

Police Minister Stuart Nash said it was a rare event and a temporary measure, and supported the decision - but said it didn't mean routine arming was getting closer.

Neither he nor Canterbury District Commander Superintendent John Price, who announced the temporary arming, would be interviewed on Friday morning.

RNZ looked at some of the available figures around firearm use both by police and in crime.

Police attitudes

On the issue of general arming of police, in 2017 69 percent of constables supported it, 3 percent more than the average of all staff. Of them, the highest support came from road policing (73 percent) and general duties branch frontline staff (73 percent).

It's a big increase on a decade ago, when only 48 percent of police employees were in favour of general arming.

Back then road policing and general duties branch staff were, like in 2017, more in favour.

Non-frontline staff and longterm staff weren't as supportive.

However, the same amount of the general public - 55 percent - were in favour of general arming in 2008 as in 2018.

But in a 2009 report, police noted that research in 2003 showed there only 33 percent of people supported general arming.

In the 2017 study, just under 4500 police were surveyed and 700 members of the public were surveyed.

A police briefing to the incoming police minister Stuart Nash in late 2017 said: "In general, most members of the public do not encounter firearms of feel threatened by firearms as they go about their normal daily activity. Violent crime offences caused by firearms has remained relatively low at around 1.4 percent.

"Nevertheless, there has been an increase in presentation of firearms in commerical robberies and in drug related criminal activities...

"Frontline police are reporting an apparent change in the weapons of choice for gangs and organised criminal groups. In the last 12 months, high-risk firearms such as pistols, semi-automatics, MSSAs and ex-defence weapons have been seized by police during warranted and warrantless searches."

Firearms figures

A firearm was presented at a police officer 17 times in 2017 including four incidents of officers being shot at, according to police figures released under the Official Information Act.

No officers were injured in any instances, nor were any members of the public.

Of the members of public who were involved in those incidents, none held a firearms licence and three of weapons were imitation firearms.

Police used a firearm on 251 occasions in 2017 - 6 percent of the total 4356 "tactical options" that were used that year, according to a Tactial Options Report (TOR).

Firearms injury data for the year was under review, but there were three fatal and three non-fatal injury shootings.

Firearms were used 457 times in 2016, TOR data for the year showed. That was 9 percent of the total 5055 events where a tactical option was used.

In 2015, firearms were used 363 times by police, making up 7 percent of the 4914 tactical options used that year.

Firearms were used 347 times in 2014 as a tactical option.

Violent offences with a firearm where the offender had a firearms licence have dropped since 2008/09 from 58 to 39 in 2017/18.

Violent offences with a firearm where the offender had never held a firearms licence have also dropped, from 710 in 2008/09 to 494 in 2017/18, although it fluctuated a lot in the years between - in 2016/17 it had gone up to 636 from 433.

Violence category offences included grievous assaults, homicide, intimidation and threats, minor assaults, robbery, and serious assaults.

Police said in a 2018 Official Information Act release that the number of firearms reported stolen in 2013-2017 was 3898, an increase of 60 percent from the years 2008-2013.

In 2008, 505 firearms were reported stolen and in 2017, 807 were reported stolen.

Civilian armoury and the Arms Act

The police briefing to Mr Nash from late 2017 said there were an estimated 1.5 million firearms in the civilian armoury.

However, a statement from August 2018 released the result of an official information act request said: "Police does not know how many legally or illegally owned firearms there are in New Zealand. As noted above, there is no requirement for licence holders to register their firearms, therefore, there is no record of the majority of firearms possessed in New Zealand...

"The number of firearms that are held illegally in the civilian armoury is impossible to estimate."

It noted the Arms Act 1983 had "not been significantly updated since 1992 and did not take into account changes in the marketplace, changes in technology and increase civilian access to the worldwise firearms market".

The briefing covered a range of issues relating to the regulation, sale and tracking of firearms and said: "Police needs additional tools to help stem the flow of firearms to the criminal community."

There were "concerning gaps" in firearms legislation, police said.

Some sections of the briefing, including recommendations to the minister, were redacted.

Acting Superintendent Andrew Sissons, National Manager: Response and Operations said: "We are currently working on modernising how Police administers the Arms Act and the services we provide for the public."

When asked if police had plans to reduce criminal access to firearms instead of arming officers, he said: "We believe that with our current range of excellent tactical options, combined with a robust training regime, that we have the right mix. Our officers have access to firearms and before attending any incident are enabled to make a decision on the best tactical option based on their risk assessment at the time, and ongoing reassessment."

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