11 Jun 2020

Armed response to Māori children 'absolutely appalling'

7:18 pm on 11 June 2020

Police Armed Response Teams (ARTs) are being criticised for attending call outs to deal with children as young as 12 while they were in action.

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Photo: RNZ / Vinay Ranchhod

The controversial teams were officially scrapped this week, but data shows the armed units were called out to several incidents involving children during the six-month trial.

Armed officers dealt with six incidents involving a total of eight 12-year-olds - seven of whom were Māori. The other 12-year-old's ethnicity was reported "unknown".

Almost all of the incidents took place in Hamilton, where Lady Tureiti Moxon runs Te Kōhao Health.

"Targeting young Māori, targeting our youth is just not on - it is absolutely appalling," she said.

"The worst of it is... that someone thought it was okay. Well it is not okay!"

None of the 12-year-olds had firearms, but three of them were listed as having a weapon, only identified as cutting, stabbing or striking.

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Photo: Supplied

Armed officers were called to deal with a child in Christchurch for wilful trespass.

Another 12-year-old was approached for assault, theft and wilful damage.

One 12-year-old Māori child was targeted by the squad for "using a phone for fictitious purposes".

Children's Commissioner slams action

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft said it was unacceptable.

"An armed response for children in the circumstances that have been outlined to me is wholly inappropriate and never acceptable."

In one of the incidents, two 12-year-olds were part of a group of nine teenagers out at night in Hamilton.

The armed officers were called to see them about wilful damage and burglary to the value of under $500.

A staunch critic of the trials, justice advocate Julia Whaipooti said the heavy-handed approach could have caused more harm.

"Showing up with armed weapons is provocative and can escalate the situation," she said.

"We need de-escalated practices - we need community responses... the more effective response is not a blue uniform.

"When there's already a tarnished relationship, or lack of trust between Māori as a community and policing, what is that entrenching in those young people and their whakaaro and relationship with police - it should never happen."

Judge Becroft said it would only be in extreme circumstances that armed police should deal with children.

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft Photo: Supplied

He's disappointed - and said what's happened could have a lasting effect on those young Māori.

"I want early interactions for children with police to be positive, constructive, and build trust and confidence.

"Not confrontational, traumatic events that can influence attitudes for life."

Fears ARTs will target Māori realised

The Armed Response Teams trial was widely criticised - with many concerned that they would target Māori.

In the end, more than 50 percent of the arrests and uses of force by ARTs members were against Māori.

South Island Whānau Ora leader Helen Leahy said she was sad to hear Māori children were targeted.

"The thing that worries me the most is that this is about institutional racism," she said.

"This is about the fact that force is being used disproportionately against Māori and the Pacific communities.

"When it comes to our Māori children, where is the role of the police to create good relationships and cultural safety?"

A Mānukau barrister specialising in youth offenders, Kingi Snelgar, said the latest findings confirmed his suspicions - that the teams would disproportionately harm Māori.

The situation should have been handled differently, he said.

"It should be an absolute last stop, there are so many things police can do before turning to firearms, and especially when you have children, [or a] vulnerable child," he said.

"Often Māori children will have negative relationships with police already so using guns to lock up or to apprehend children is just totally unnecessary and a complete misuse of that power.

"I can't think of, in my mind, any justification for using arms against young Māori and what that does is just continue that legacy of police using power against Māori which has been happening for generations."

Police announced this week the Armed Response Teams would be scrapped for good.

Snelgar said he was glad they will not be rolled out across the country, but the problems were not over.

"There are deeper institutional issues within the police that need to be deconstructed if we are to move to a society where people are treated equally and not judged because of their race.

"There is global recognition now of the dangers and the misuse of police power."

Police declined to be interviewed but in a statement said during the trial, which ended in April, the teams were deployed to a range of policing jobs.

"Many of which were responded to as general duty callouts, and did not require the presentation of a firearm," police said.

"It's important to note that in some of these instances young offenders were carrying weapons such as knives, and that there were often other, older offenders present also."

Police said no use of force was employed against a 12-year-old during the trial.

They said they did not always have full information about an alleged offender before attending an event and were committed to treating people fairly, and improving outcomes for Māori.

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