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Mental Health Foundation says ART trials must stop

Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand says ART trials must stop.
THURSDAY 14 NOVEMBER

The Mental Health Foundation strongly opposes the introduction of armed police to Aotearoa New Zealand due to well-founded concerns that guns will disproportionately be used against individuals experiencing mental health crises.

“We’ve been here before when Police proposed the introduction of Tasers more than 10 years ago,” MHF chief executive Shaun Robinson says. “The Foundation repeatedly warned police, the Government and the public about international evidence suggesting Tasers would be disproportionately used against people experiencing mental illness.

“These warnings were not heeded. In 2016, police officers were found to have discharged Tasers in 25% of all cases involving an individual with mental illness, but only 16.6% of cases involving others. Recent figures indicate this trend has continued.

“This is an urgent concern and so far, we have had no indication that the safety and wellbeing of people experiencing mental distress has been considered by those leading the trials. There is no doubt that more armed officers will result in more deaths and injuries for people experiencing mental health crises. Now, as well as shooting people with Tasers the police will be shooting them with guns.”

The Foundation adds its voice to others with serious concerns about the impact an armed police force will have on Māori, who are overrepresented in our mental illness and suicide statistics. While the New Zealand Police have acknowledged racial bias against Māori, this acknowledgement has had no impact on the number of Māori being arrested or approached by police, and two thirds of individuals shot by police in the last decade were Māori or Pasifika.

Police officers attended around 43,000 mental health callouts last year. They are frequently in contact with our most vulnerable and distressed members of society. Over-stretched services continue to rely on Police to respond to people in the community in crisis, but police receive inadequate training and support to do so safely and compassionately. The potential introduction of guns to these interactions can only decrease the safety and likelihood of a good outcome for both those who are mentally unwell and for police themselves.

Myths about people who live with mental illness continue to thrive in Aotearoa. Many people still believe people who experience mental illness are violent, dangerous and unpredictable. The Police are not immune to these attitudes – these ingrained prejudices help to drive disproportionate use of force against people in mental health crises.

“We cannot keep saying we want to normalise mental health, want people to share their experiences and ask for help while implementing policies and practises that undermine their safety and their human rights,” Mr Robinson says.

The police justification for armed police is also based on myths rather than facts. As Emilie Rākete pointed out, statistics show that police in New Zealand report fewer injuries than bartenders and assaults on Police involving a firearm have not increased in the last four years – in fact, they have decreased.

International evidence provides reason for extreme concern that people who are mentally unwell have a far greater risk of being killed by armed law enforcement officers than others. In the US, the risk of being killed while being approached or stopped by law enforcement is 16 times higher for individuals with ‘untreated serious mental illness’ than for other members of the community. One in four fatal law enforcement encounters involves an individual with serious mental illness – some studies have found as many as half of all law enforcement homicides result in the death of someone who lives with serious mental illness.

A study comparing gun violence in Australia, Britain and the US found not only were Australian police “too ready to use gun violence against the mentally ill,” but the fewer people (including police officers) who have access to firearms, the safer that community is.

“These concerns cannot be alleviated,” Mr Robinson says. “We simply do not have the resourcing or even the knowledge to combat and reverse bias against people who experience mental illness and bias against Māori and other minorities in a way that would ensure their safety in encounters with Police. There is no way an armed police force can be introduced to New Zealand without increasing harm to our most vulnerable people and there is no justification for taking this massive risk. This trial must be stopped.”

ENDS


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