20 Oct 2019

Opinion: More cops with guns means more people shot by police

3:16 pm on 20 October 2019

By Mark Hanna*

Opinion: The police are assuring the public that more armed police officer in dark SUVs will make our communities safer. But will it really?

Armed Offenders Squad vehicle leaving an incident in South Auckland. 6 July 2016.

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced this week that dark police SUVs, each filled with three armed police officers, will be patrolling some of our communities 24/7 for the next six months.

The pitch is that these "Armed Response Teams" will be able to respond more quickly to things like firearms incidents, getting cops with guns on site more quickly than if officers needed to retrieve them from the lockboxes in their cars.

Bush claims this will make our communities safer. But will it really?

When announcing this new pilot, Bush cited statistics regarding the number of firearms incidents attended by police in the seven months since 15 March. On 180 occasions, firearms were presented at police officers or members of the public. On 17 of those, firearms were presented at police. And on eight of those, shots were fired at police.

Because police did not begin to collect comprehensive data on these events until after 15 March, Bush was unable to say definitively whether or not these numbers are getting worse.

Information released by police under the Official Information Act shows that in an equivalent period two years earlier, police recorded officers used firearms 148 times (excluding Armed Offenders Squad callouts). They fired shots at only three events.

In more than a quarter of those events (39), officers presented firearms at people who were recorded as either being cooperative (21) or otherwise below the "assaultive" level (8) as described in the police Tactical Options Framework.

In August 2017, two police officers didn't put their pistols back after arming themselves for an incident. Later that day, they knocked a man off his motorcycle during a pursuit. When he didn't run away, because his ankle was broken in the crash, the officers grew suspicious and approached with their pistols drawn.

In August the IPCA ruled that, among other failings, both officers "breached police policy by drawing their firearms when approaching Mr X, as the threat they faced was not significant enough to warrant the presence of a firearm".

I fear that this is a preview of the behaviour we will see from these Armed Response Teams: Police bringing firearms to incidents where their presence is absolutely inappropriate, and only poses a risk to everyone present.

In September 2017, Constable Sean Mathew Doak presented a taser at a woman following a pursuit. In August, Doak was found guilty of presenting a restricted weapon without a lawful and sufficient purpose. This was extraordinary because, in almost all cases in which police officers present weapons without good reason, there are no legal consequences.

Between July 2016 and December 2017, figures from the Tactical Options Reporting data show police officers presented or otherwise used their tasers against people below the "assaultive" threshold 307 times. Police taser policy states "an overriding principle guiding the employment of TASER is that it can only be applied in situations within and beyond the assaultive range", but we have not seen anything close to 307 prosecutions during this period.

It's clear that police already sometimes abuse the weaponry available to them. The IPCA seems to release new findings that officers used excessive force on practically a weekly basis. To make matters worse, Māori are about eight times as likely as Pākehā to be on the receiving end of police violence.

The highest duty of police officers should be the protection of human life, but initiatives like this do not serve to protect life. More cops with guns means more people shot by police. It's up to us, as responsible citizens, to put a higher value on human life, and to not accept this.

The Police Commissioner said public feedback will be one way in which police will determine the success of this trial. If these armed police make you feel less safe, make sure your voice is heard.

* Mark Hanna is a transparency, justice reform, and anti-pseudoscience activist based in Auckland. He has extensively analysed Tactical Options Reporting data released by Police under the Official Information Act.

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