Petitioner urges police to talanoa after Armed Response Teams scrapped

8:37 pm on 9 June 2020

The woman who launched a petition urging police to scrap their Armed Response Team (ART) believes it put her job in jeopardy, but it was worth it now the squad has been axed for good.

The new new police special patrol vehicle.

Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

The controversial police Armed Response Teams have been axed for good, with the Police Commissioner saying they failed to get public support.

The six-month trial in Counties-Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury was fiercely criticised by justice advocates, concerned about a lack of community consultation, and that the armed squads would disproportionately target Māori and Pasifika communities.

Dunedin woman Melissa Lama said she was happy the petition she started was effective but warned that campaigning of this kind could be risky.

"Personally when anybody takes on this role of being a lead petitioner or being amongst a group of campaigners, you have to realise that whatever position you're in with employment - that can have consequences."

Lama told Checkpoint she had faced some questions and backlash from her community about challenging authority and not "staying in your lane".

"But I think the bigger picture of it all, people couldn't quite see what this could potentially mean for us, especially with the things we see happening in the United States."

There was a lot of personal sacrifice for herself and her campaigners, Lama said, "but we chose to wear it."

"I know as a Pacific woman growing up in Aotearoa you have to navigate all these different spaces, different types of people that you come across.

"And my mum has always told me… eventually all the success we get, the blessings we receive are far greater than ourselves. So you have to put yourself in the position where you're feeling uncomfortable and thinking of others.

"For me, I felt like this was a time where I could do that. It was definitely a real test, I'm not going to lie, but I'm definitely grateful that I still have a job.

"It does take a lot of guts, and I do feel for people, because there are challenges in our system that still disallow us [from having] a voice.

"It sucks more when you're from a minority group. Because we don't have the privilege of having a massive population of people to speak on our behalf.

"So the skills I have in the sector I'm in are also the skills my community call on me to use. So for me that was definitely the make or break, but I don't have any regrets."

Lama said her message for the Police Commissioner was that the decision was a great step in the right direction.

"I would definitely say to review the aspect of 'talanoa' - the aspect of communication, conversation with communities, and to really ask communities what safety looks like to them.

"But also look within their own organisation and see what they could do differently to ensure when they make decisions that affect minority groups, that we're not having to go through petitions.

"If you could save us that and give us the space to speak earlier, then please give it to us."

'We need a style of policing the community will support' - Commissioner

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster - who inherited the trial from his predecessor - made the announcement today that it was the end of the road for the ARTs.

"In a model where we police with the consent of the public it's critical that the vast majority of people support the style in which we are policing, and that's been the main basis for the decision I've taken," Coster told Checkpoint.

Police officers stand next to the new special patrol vehicle.

Police officers at the launch of the Armed Response Team trial. Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

"The position I believe we can take away from this is New Zealanders generally believe we should have an unarmed police service, I'm committed to that way of policing and we need to develop options to keep us and the community safe that reflect that intent.

He said the ARTs did an "outstanding" job of dealing with "a number of high-end tactical situations ... they didn't fire a single shot ... so there was a lot of positives to come with it".

The decision he made was based primarily on the public reaction to the teams.

"It's not in any way to say the Armed Response Teams are a failure or we take nothing away from it, it's simply that we need a style of policing that the community will support."

Coster said he believed the ARTs created a level of concern about the way police were presenting.

The anti-ART sentiment was strong from many communities in the country, he said.

However, saying they caused people to feel unsafe or threatened was "probably taking it too far", he said.

He said there was still support for the police being armed, but it was not enough to continue with ARTs.

"There are definitely some learnings to take away about the pace in which we step into anything that is ... fundamental to the way we police, the need to consult early and widely with a variety of stakeholders and communities.

"As we move forward in developing our options for the future, one of the key commitments here is to make sure we do consult on key issues before we move into them."

Coster said he had no direction from the government about the decision.

But he also said "I have certainly had conversations with our minister about it".

Coster said Police Minister Stuart Nash had "never tried to direct us in any way", because police were operationally independent.

When asked if he had feedback from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the ARTs, Coster said: "I have had feedback from a range of people in the course of this and that feedback has been, generally speaking, that this model does not fit well with our style of policing in New Zealand".

He said he could not speak for all ministers, but believed that it was "probably the case" that they held that view.

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