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Dunne Speaks: A No-brainer For The Police

The Police decision to abandon its Armed Response Teams trial was a no-brainer. The concept was never going to work or be acceptable to a sufficient section of the community to make it viable. Indeed, the only mystery is that it took the Police so long to come to that conclusion. Although Police officers are not routinely armed as they go about their daily duties, unlike, for example, their colleagues in Australia or the United States, they do have ready access to firearms if required, including high-powered rifles, and receive firearms training.

Also, a dedicated Armed Offenders Squad was established in 1964 after four Police officers had been killed in two separate incidents. Its role has been to attend incidents requiring an armed response, often situations where some form of confrontation has taken place. Over the years, the Armed Offenders Squad has been involved in many difficult and serious incidents. While no Armed Offenders Squad members have been killed in the line of duty, many have been injured, some seriously. The Squad attends around 800 incidents each year, with shots being exchanged at about 260 of these.

But, like all policing, an effective response by the Armed Offenders Squad relies on there being quality information available and an ongoing situation for them to respond to. They are not the right response team in all situations. For example, even though they were quickly on the scene of the Christchurch mosque shootings, just ten minutes after being deployed, they were too late to stop the slaughter. This is in no way intended to denigrate their courage or their efforts, but rather to make the point that the Armed Offenders Squad may not always be the appropriate response.

It is against that type of background that the Armed Response Team concept should be considered. Policing today relies on two elements – the support and compliance of the public, and the nimbleness of response. The early stages of the Covid19 crisis showed that people were unlikely to take positively to heavy-handed policing of the restrictions being imposed, but were far more positively and co-operatively disposed towards an educative approach that sought their compliance rather than just demanded it. And in their daily work, Police officers in New Zealand are frequently seen working alongside their local communities, gaining their trust and confidence, quite unlike their counterparts in the United States, for example, whose multiple deficiencies have been dramatically exposed in recent days. Community involvement is an important link our Police cannot risk being disrupted.

However, the harsh style and tone that would automatically be associated with the presence of an Armed Response Team would destroy much of that goodwill local Police have built up with their local communities over the years. It would have placed an unnecessary barrier in the way of Police securing the ongoing compliance of the community and created very unfortunate stereotypes. Overall, it is by no means clear that the presence of Armed Response Teams would have had a positive impact on the safety and security of the community.

A retired senior British Judge observed recently that it was the role of the Police to be the community’s servants, not the government’s agents. The community-focused role of the New Zealand Police over the last 30 or 40 years is testament to the wisdom of that view. Police are better trained and prepared to deal with a range of complex and unusual problems, with the overriding ambition of building safer communities. The new Commissioner of Police appears to personify many of those positive values.

But, for all that, the very nature of the Police’s work means they will always face a challenge gaining the confidence of every sector of society. That is an impossible task. But the risk of alienating sectors of the community by getting it wrong is also a very real risk. Police therefore are constantly involved in a community balancing act. Minimising or avoiding unnecessary risks is an important aspect of that. Getting things wrong can create rifts that take years to mend, as the aftermath of the abortive Urewera raids in 2007 has shown. None of that is conducive to good policing.

While there remain unanswered questions about aspects of the Armed Response Teams trial, including the level of political involvement, and who knew what, when, the decision to abandon the plan is nevertheless the proper one. The Commissioner has claimed the decision was reached after community and sector group consultation, although it is far from clear how widespread this was, or when it took place.

Nevertheless, the outcome is a positive one, and the tone the Commissioner has set bodes well for the relationship between the Police and the wider community over the next few years.

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