5 Aug 2021

Support among police for carrying arms at highest level in decade, survey shows

11:25 am on 5 August 2021

A biennial survey run by NielsenIQ of almost 6000 Police Association members shows 73 percent support for general arming of the police constabulary, the highest level in a decade.

QUEENSTOWN, NZ - JAN 18:NZ Policemen on duty on Jan 18 2014. With over 11,000 staff it is the largest law enforcement agency in New Zealand.

The survey found one in four general duties officers were threatened with a firearm last year. File photo Photo: 123RF

Support is even higher among frontline officers, with road policing at 79 percent, general duties police at 77 percent, and other uniformed operational roles at 74 percent.

The survey found one in four general duties officers were threatened with a firearm last year, while one in eight officers overall were threatened with a gun.

The last time support for general arming was at these levels was in 2010, the year after senior constable Len Snee was shot dead during the Napier siege.

It was also two years after sergeant Derek Wootton was killed by a fleeing driver, and sergeant Don Wilkinson was shot dead.

This year's survey comes after constable Matt Hunt was shot and killed in Auckland in 2020, and David Goldfinch was also injured in the incident.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said the message from members is clear - they do not believe the current availability of firearms is sufficient for their safety.

Last week Police Commissioner Andrew Coster ruled out a move towards the general arming of police officers.

He was commenting after Eli Epiha who murdered police officer Matthew Hunt was found guilty of the attempted murder of Goldfinch.

Coster said safety of the front line was top of mind for the police leadership who were looking at "whole system settings" to keep police as safe as possible.

"It's tempting to want to reach for a single solution that would be the magic wand.

"I'm pretty clear that general arming is not that magic wand.

"If we look internationally, there's no jurisdiction you would point to to go they're so much safer than us because they carry firearms."

In April, RNZ reported that 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.

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.

Heed officers' opinion - Police Association

Cahill said support among frontline staff should be listened to by decision makers.

"They're the ones who are really at the coalface," Cahill said.

"It's easy for many of us, myself included, to say this is a really big move and it will fundamentally change the way we police in New Zealand, but these are the officers that are actually facing the fundamental changes that have already occurred in society.

"Those changes around risk to them and risk to members of the community out there because of firearms, so their opinion is the most important, I think."

NZ Police Association president Chris Cahill

Police officers' opinion is the most important element in considering whether they should be carrying arms, Chris Cahill says. Photo: Supplied/ Local Democracy Reporting

Cahill said the figures showing one in four frontline officers had been confronted with a firearm in the past year were concerning, and matched up with figures on the number of staff suffering from post traumatic stress.

He said the mental distress being caused on the job was rising as firearms crime was rising.

The association has almost 11,000 members among the 14,000 strong police staff, including 99.2 percent of the constabulary.

The greatest opposition to general arming came from senior levels of the police, or those whose main duty is administration, planning or support, with support for arming as low as 25 or 29 percent.

But according to the survey, wider public support is in the majority, with 57 percent in favour of general arming.

That is a drop from 2019, when 61 percent were in favour.

Cahill said with staff and the public generally on board for the arming of police officers, Commissioner Coster, needed to make a decision.

Cahill is concerned at what he said is a blurring of the line between politicians and the police.

"I think you've got to be realistic to say something like this will always have a political edge to it and will always be something that will be debated politically, but it needs to be remembered that in the end it is an operational decision for the commissioner.

"But I think on a more wider basis we have to be really careful that politics aren't pushing further and further into operational police decisions and that's something we'll be watching closely."

The association cited comments from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern over previous years, including a November 2019 tweet to rapper Tom Scott, when she said of general arming: "Won't happen while I'm in this job. That we do get a say in".

Cahill said Ardern should not have a say.

"It does worry me. I think there has definitely been a blurring of the line between politicians and police independence, and that needs to be looked at.

"The bottom line is, the prime minister will not make this decision because it's not her decision to make."

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