4 Mar 2020

New armed police use could inflame Māori community - Borrows

2:11 pm on 4 March 2020

There are concerns new armed police response teams could enflame already strained relations with Māori and Pasifika communities.

Police officers stand next to the new special patrol vehicle.

Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

Former police officer and National MP, Chester Borrows, who chaired the Government's justice advisory group, voiced concerns at the implementation of the new Armed Response Teams.

A six-month trial of the Armed Response Teams began in October in Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury. Originally police said the purpose of the teams would be to respond to critical or high-risk incidents.

During the first five weeks of the trial, they were called out 75 times a day - 50 times more often than the Armed Offenders Squad were called out.

National commander Freda Grace, who oversees the teams, defended their day-to-day use, which included traffic stops, telling RNZ's Morning Report it made no sense for them to sit idle.

However, Borrows said the way the teams were being used suggested the overt routine use of armed police and that it potentially had a serious impact on public relations with host communities.

"It doesn't seem what the teams' brief was at the start of the project. It's seems there's been some sort of mission creep," he told Morning Report.

"Police are routinely armed now, they're just not overtly, routinely armed as in carrying on their hip, but we are seeing far more armed police on our streets.

"My concern about this is that it's sort of ramping it up and it's in certain communities where that response will be inevitable and that will lead to, not only more arming by police, but even more arming by criminals. So we'll see more police shot and probably more public shot by police."

Whanganui MP Chester Borrows

Whanganui MP Chester Borrows Photo: RNZ

Borrows said Māori were most targeted by police and the most confronting to them. He pointed to a justice report released last week by Advocacy Group Just Speak that highlighted the disproportionate targeting of Māori by police.

"Māori firstly are seven times more likely to be charged as a first offender, so even on a blank page, strict Pākehā-versus-Māori analysis - Māori are seven times more likely to be charged. And when they are being charged, they are more likely to be fronting other charges numerically," he said.

"So, this a community where the police need to do a hell of a lot more work on relationships and just chucking SWAT-team types of vehicles full of armed police looking like they're tooled up and looking for trouble or action, doesn't seem to be the way to engage with those communities to bring those stats down."

His comments were echoed today by Victoria University Professor of Criminology Simon Mackenzie, who told RNZ the consequences of more regular arming could effectively tackle crime, or could be racially divisive, escalating the situation as in the United States.

"Bringing guns regularly into communities, especially with the well-known racially disproportionate effects of the criminal justice system writ large - the fact that these guns will almost inevitably be disproportionately used is something that means that this may seem like a small decision, but actually it's probably quite a big one," he said.

Mackenzie said for police to say they were opposed to routine arming but then routinely arm some patrolling officers was "Trumpian newspeak".

"So, of course, they're going to be asked to respond to other calls and engage with any emerging events that happen nearby. The problem is that then brings police with guns into normal day-to-day business, policing in the community."

Borrows said he understood risks faced by police had increased because of the increased propensity to use violence by meth users and because illegal weapons in circulation with gangs had risen. But he police already had routine access to weapons.

Last year, Armed Offenders Squads were called out on average 1.3 times a day across Auckland, Waikato, and Canterbury - 488 times in the 2018/19 financial year - for both emergency and pre-planned events.

The same AOS officers, which make up Armed Response Teams, were deployed 2641 times between 28 October and 2 December last year in Counties Manukau, Waikato, and Canterbury districts.

The trial finishes in late April. From there it will be assessed as to whether it will be scrapped, continues, or rolled out more widely.

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