16 Apr 2021

Police told to carry guns on average once a week, figures reveal

6:42 am on 16 April 2021

Dozens and sometimes hundreds of frontline police officers have been told to carry guns on average once a week in recent months, as fears around gun violence escalate.

Armed police in Brooklyn, Wellington, after an assault

Police responding to an incident in Wellington (file photo). Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Some of these temporary arming orders - where all frontline officers can be armed - can span entire districts and last for days, usually while police investigate a shooting or other violence.

Some say this is the safest response to a growing problem - others warn it increases the chances of injury and death.

In the 10 months to January this year, police issued 47 of what they call "temporary carriage orders", figures released under the Official Information Act show. This is slightly more than once a week somewhere around the country.

This means all officers in a particular area and sometimes a entire district can carry a gun on them rather than in the boot of the car. Officers can choose which type of firearm they carry: a glock or a rifle.

The longest order lasted six days in the Far North, another was three days in the eastern Bay of Plenty, another for two days and eight hours in part of the Waitematā District, and a number of others for 24 hours.

Police said data on the number of temporary carriage orders before this period "do not exist", so RNZ is unable to tell if the orders are being issued more or less frequently.

Police conference in Wellington. Chris Cahill, NZ Police Association.

Police Association president Chris Cahill says the number of serious firearms offences is high across the country. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Police Association president Chris Cahill said it seemed to be common.

"It certainly strikes me that it's very often. Unfortunately, to a degree, not surprising. It just reflects the number of serious firearms incidents that happen right across New Zealand on what we're now seeing as an almost a daily basis, and these figures support that," Cahill said.

The vast majority of the arming orders were in response to gun crime. More than a quarter were in Northland.

Martin Kaipo, a former Black Power leader who now runs a community organisation Otangarei Trust, in Whangarei, said he wasn't surprised police were carrying guns, given the high methamphetamine use in the area and the risk of violence.

"It's the police way of pre-empting the potential for danger. The violence these days has escalated to another level."

He said the amount of methamphetamine around was encouraging those who had it to arm themselves.

"A lot of people are unaware that these [guns] have been brought in to the community which has [caused] anxiety through not only through the community but definitely anxiety and concern through the police. So we share that anxiety.

Otangarei Trust chief executive Martin Kaipo.

Martin Kaipo said violence had "escalated to another level". Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

"In one sense it could be justified that police may seek to [be armed] but we don't want our society, New Zealand society, to start looking like America."

Chester Borrows, a former National MP and recent member of a government justice advisory group, said it was reasonable for police to be concerned about criminals carrying guns. But arming police in response may just escalate the risk.

"My worry is that they think the only response to that is to tool up themselves. That can only sort of end in a bigger threat.

"How much negotiation is actually happening here? What are we doing to take the heat down, and try to disarm by talking?"

The police documents show that in one instance last year Rotorua officers were authorised to carry guns for nine hours after they found a car with bullet holes in it on a suburban street. No one was ever charged, and the investigation ended.

The director of criminal justice group JustSpeak, Tania Sawicki-Mead, said it is a worry how widely these orders are applied across police - including to inexperienced officers.

"It definitely concerns me that those arming orders mean that every frontline police officer is potentially carrying that weapon, when we know - sometimes from police themselves, frontline police officers - that they don't feel that they have the training and support to use those weapons safely," Sawicki-Mead said.

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Tania Sawicki-Mead of JustSpeak Photo: JustSpeak

"One of the complicated factors about the Armed Response Team trial was that there was a feeling from somewhere in the police force that many of the frontline officers were not equipped with the right skill set or training to be holding these deadly weapons, which are frequently turned upon our most marginalised communities, both here in New Zealand and also internationally."

A former police officer of 20 years, Lance Burdett, said on the face of it, these arming orders appeared justified.

"I looked at this [data] with probably a biased view of 'what the heck's going on here?' And there was nothing that stood out within any of that reporting that said to me 'Wow, there's something not quite right here'," Burdett said.

He said general firearms training for officers had waned recently, but he was not worried about new officers having a gun on their person, saying the level of training was high.

"Police officers, when they come out of the college, do have a good level of understanding of firearms. You're not allowed out of police college or to carry a firearm until you are qualified, and it's quite a high standard. Yes, there is the chance that one person might have a rush of blood, but generally that doesn't happen now."

He said police managers were very conscious of their officers' safety, especially considering the level of firearm crime at the moment.

"That plays on your mind. There is always that risk, not just for the public but also for the staff. Managers will be thinking a lot about their own staff and their safety."

Sawicki-Mead hoped these arming orders did not creep further into police practise and become more common.

"Seeing how frequent these orders are complicates the really important precedent that we have set in New Zealand - that we don't want the routine arming of police."

Taipo, who is also Northland social worker, said seeing armed police was certainly changing how people viewed them.

"So the community starts thinking every time they see a police officer they're gonna be tooled up, or gunned up," he said.

"We're watching the media about overseas events that have happened between the police and civilians - that will start to play on the minds of communities."

Police would not be interviewed for this story.

In a statement, Inspector Nic Brown said issuing temporary carriage orders is taken very seriously and will be the best tactical option based on a risk assessment.

"Temporary carriage is a matter taken very seriously and is issued when we believe there is a genuine risk to wider members of the public and our staff, usually when we believe an offender/s is in possession of a firearm/firearms.

"Nothing is more important or critical to us as a Police service than the safety of all people and communities across Aotearoa New Zealand. This includes our people.

"The reality of policing is that it is an inherently dangerous job, our frontline staff put themselves in harms way everyday to protect the public.

Brown said not a single shot was fired while any of the orders were in place.

This week police in the Nelson Bays area were armed for almost two full days after a shooting where one person was injured.

It happened on Tuesday afternoon and the arming order ceased with a suspect's arrest on Thursday at 11am.

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