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ART aftermath

Although the armed response team experiment is over, the issues that prompted it remain and were tragically highlighted last month with the death of Constable Matthew Hunt during routine police work.

Former Police commissioner Mike Bush launched the armed response teams (ART) trial last October. New commissioner Andy Coster quickly canned it last month in the face of mounting public criticism.

Even before the full evaluation report was in, he said ARTs were not the style of policing New Zealand wanted.

The Police Association accepts that the model will not go ahead and acknowledges the lack of community consultation involved, and the unhelpful connotations of the name and vehicle colour.

But association president Chris Cahill says the decision leaves unanswered questions, chief among them being how to deal with the problem the trial was set up to address – the lack of timely and skilled expertise to handle high-risk events in an increasingly armed criminal community.

The teams, each consisting of three or more experienced officers with armed offenders squad (AOS) expertise, were deployed at peak hours. Police data shows they attended 8629 incidents over the six-month trial period – an average of 47 a day.

Most of the incidents were 3Ts – a stop or search of a car or person. Bail checks, family harm incidents, arrest warrants and suspicious people or cars made up the remaining top five job codes.

Feedback from members in the three trial districts – Counties Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury – suggests the expertise and availability of the ARTs were helpful in managing and de-escalating risky incidents involving arms.

In the feedback, the ARTs were commended for their ability to attend high-risk events quickly – compared with the AOS, whose members have to be called in from their normal work – and to de-escalate events quickly, resulting in less risk to both police and the community.

They were also found to have a useful role mentoring and upskilling other frontline staff on managing high-risk situations.

The commissioner’s cancellation of the ART project came amid rising criticism from the Green Party and other groups that New Zealand police were moving towards an armed, militaristic American style of policing. They drew connections between the killing of George Floyd by police in the United States and the use of ARTs in New Zealand, suggesting the ARTs were targeting Māori communities.

Chris Cahill robustly rejected such connections, pointing out that communities such as Counties Manukau are the most victimised by gun crime and deserve the best protection from police.

“What we do know is no ART officer fired a shot during the trial and they dealt safely and quickly with hundreds of incidents. ARTs may not be the complete answer, but there is certainly value in having highly trained officers more readily available to attend dangerous situations,” he said.

“I ask those who have argued passionately against ARTs to now work equally as passionately with police to expose and reject the proliferation of illegal firearms in the communities most at risk.”

Andy Coster says the decision to not continue with the ARTs was based on preliminary findings from the trial evaluation, which is yet to be completed, feedback from the public, and consultation with community groups. "How the public feels is important,” he says. “We police with the consent of the public, and that is a privilege.”

The community’s views must be listened to, but frontline police believe they should be heard too. Here are two views from the frontline.

 

The following viewpoints, written before Matthew Hunt’s death, are now more relevant than ever.

What it takes to keep you, and us, safe

Constable Kurt Stephenson, a Christchurch dog handler:

There is no doubt that the New Zealand Police needs to be engaging with the public. We need the public to be reassured we are there for them.

In fact, everything we do is for them, even road policing and handing out infringement notices to decent citizens for making a bad decision.

Despite all the community work and school visits that police do, sometimes we need to enforce the law to keep people safe.

The public often does not fully understand what is required to do the job of keeping people safe, while keeping ourselves safe.

I see the enormous amount of work that the Police organisation does daily to break down barriers between community groups and police.

Why has the police commissioner not made a public statement about all the positive work New Zealand police officers do in the community on a daily basis and about how far we have come as an organisation in terms of understanding cultures and equality?

I recently watched on social media an aggressive young woman who had filmed herself at a march in Auckland screaming at a New Zealand police officer, “F… you and f… what you stand for”.

That officer, for one, deserves to have Police as an organisation front up for what he/she stands for, which is trying to make the community a decent and safe place.

New Zealand Police is not perfect, but it is the least violent, most people-centred and community-immersed police system in the world.

The first time we heard publicly from our new commissioner, he told us the armed response team (ART) model would not be going ahead.

I was not part of the ART trial. I agree that the way it was rolled out was flawed – the blue vehicles and media hype encouraging “clickbait” style feedback. However, I am qualified to have an opinion on the state of frontline policing.

I joined Police not to save the world, but because it was a decent job, and I don’t like it when bad things happen to nice people for no good reason.

  • I have only ever policed frontline.
  • I am fortunate to have had additional specialist tactical training.
  • I have never arrested or used force on a person for being a particular race.
  • I have been spat on, bitten, punched in the head and had my eyes gouged.
  • I have seen the violent results of gangs, drugs and illegal firearms on the community.
  • I have seen the dramatic increase in the number of illegal firearms in homes, in cars and on offenders.
  • I have been threatened by offenders with weapons and firearms too many times to count.
  • I have seen people killed by illegal firearms, murdered over drugs, money or broken relationships.
  • Virtually all high-risk offenders now carry illegal firearms.
  • I have been shot at by an offender high on meth and using a stolen firearm.
  • I am not unique. I would like to not be armed. However, my family would like me to come home.
  • I don’t think all police should be armed all the time. The current policy is reasonable.
  • The carriage of a firearm saved my life once.

We talk about our vision, “To be the safest country”, but we need to keep our own people safe for this to happen. The addition of four experienced police officers with additional skills and equipment could have been a useful addition to support frontline staff, but the ART option is off the table.

Let’s hope there are no more active shooter or terrorist events that require immediate intervention.

Let’s hope there are no hostage rescue events that require immediate action.

Let’s hope there are no events that could have been resolved by use of a less lethal 40mm sponge round.

Let’s hope no one else is killed, or hurt, because they did not have a ballistic shield.

Let’s hope no one is harmed because of a failed breach on a door or window.

Let’s hope a high-risk offender does not use a vehicle that could have been stopped by an officer trained in stopping a non-compliant vehicle.

Let’s hope the public feels safer. Let’s hope the commissioner has a solution.

This is not an easy job.

‘Firearms are a daily part of policing now’

Constable Jonny Hurn, Tactical Crime Unit, Auckland:

I see a child flee as a drunken brawl becomes a stabbing. I smell drugs instead of food in empty cupboards. I taste the bitter loss in news I’d rather not deliver. I hear a gunshot echo through a quiet suburb. I am a New Zealand Police officer.

My friends and I walk a line between the world you see and the one you live in.

...The radio bleep pierces a cloudy afternoon “Priority details” – my ears
tune in...

I would like to tell you about the lives I’ve saved, the first aid I’ve given, the children I’ve taken to school. I could talk about people I’ve talked down from the brink and about putting my body on the line to ensure dangerous people do not escape justice. But before any of that, I should tell you this. It really hurts to hear people say I’m racist. In the same way it hurts to be spat on and sworn at. It leaves me feeling tarnished.

...There is a brief pause, the dispatcher is reading, “One witness, male seen with pistol in a park”…

I know Māori and Pacific people are over-represented in the justice sector. I also know it a symptom of the systemic failure by generations of our country’s leaders to address long-standing issues. A solution is going to take time and some honest conversations about what it means to call New Zealand home.

As I race across town to attend a violent armed incident, the ethnicity of who’s involved isn’t relevant at that moment,
nor are the political ramifications of another event in a certain suburb. None of that matters as the job comes in and I choose to arm myself. None of it matters as the situation unfolds and choices are made. At that moment I am legally accountable for my decision and there is no room for error.

...lights and sirens cut the traffic – we’re en route as I wonder if it’s a real gun...

A person’s colour won’t matter until much later, despite the calls from community groups, spokespeople, politicians and other commentators who want you to believe that I’m making tactical decisions based on someone’s skin colour.

It’s simply not the case. The only time colour comes into it is for physical descriptions.

...“informant lost sight” – the boss starts to coordinate cordons and search locations as we head into the area...

Above all other tactical options, we are trained to ask ourselves one simple question – what is the least amount of force I can use to stop this threat. Sometimes that can be a lot. Sometimes it can be lethal.

I own the weight of that. It was the oath I swore, and it is an unfortunate reality. Thankfully, force of that nature is rarely the solution. Sadly, it sometimes is. My friends and I face more gun violence now than at any other time in the past decade as a sad side-effect of our nation's addiction to methamphetamine.

In 2019, there were 3540 occasions where an offender was found with a gun. That’s 9.6 a day nationally. Nearly 10 times each day, one of my mates finds an offender with a gun.

On 13 occasions in 2019 we were directly attacked by these guns. Despite this and despite having greater access to our own firearms, we only presented ours at an offender in 305 events – less than one a day. These numbers may seem low, but gun-related deaths have more than doubled since 2014.

But these statistics don’t matter as we run towards the job.

...offender sighted again now making an approach towards (location)”. There is no time to lose, it’s a public location...

One of the following is true. Either way, we are armed.

  1. It’s a young man with a firearm and bad intentions.
  2. It’s a young man with a toy intending to scare people.
  3. It’s a young man with a toy and a terrible sense of humour.
  4. The witness has it wrong, it’s a phone.

This example is real. It was option two and it ended peacefully, but I’ve never been so disappointed with another person’s behaviour.

Firearms are a daily part of policing now. Gang members, drug dealers and criminals are using them on each other; the public are caught in the middle.

In moments like this, you will want the best of us to be there. You will want the experienced hands, tactical skills, and refined communication strategies of our most talented operators. You will want the armed offender squad on duty all the time, keeping watch, helping less experienced staff with violent jobs, so they can do their best.

Would you feel safer knowing a team of your area’s best cops have been added to the frontline, standing by to protect you? Would you be safer? Would my friends in uniform be safer? The answers are yes.
The only person who isn’t safer is the armed offender who makes the choice to attack rather than surrender.

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