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Make the time fit the crime

The case for mandatory sentencing for assaults on first responders.

Serious assaults on police officers in New Zealand are on the rise, with many of our members paying a high, and unacceptable, price for doing their job of protecting the public.

From minor bruising and scratches to severely fractured jaws, eye sockets and limbs, and lacerations that require lengthy recovery periods, some assaults have even proved career ending for the officers involved.

Our members are well trained and resilient, but they are not super-human, and, while the risks of police work are acknowledged, the Police Association says there should not be an expectation of being assaulted.

As such, the association is supporting the intent of a private member’s bill from NZ First MP Darroch Ball that aims to increase protections for first responders and prison officers by introducing mandatory sentencing for serious assaults.

The bill seeks a new offence under the Crimes Act 1961 for intentionally injuring a first responder or prison officer, with a minimum six-month prison sentence.

The bill would also expand the definition of a first responder in the Summary Offences Act 1981 to include emergency service workers.

New Zealand Police figures show that although the number of assaults on police officers (non-Crimes Act) has declined in the past 20 years, the number of serious assaults (Crimes Act) has increased by 297 per cent.

The bill is at the select committee stage and in its submission to the committee, the association has also called for authorised officers (AOs) to be included in the definition of first responder.

Amending the Crimes Act would elevate the seriousness with which attacks on first responders are regarded and doubling the maximum term of imprisonment from five to 10 years would differentiate assaults on first responders and prison officers from attacks on members of the public.

It would acknowledge that first responders are tasked with going into unpredictable and potentially violent situations to assist others who may be in danger. This is an important distinction, as many of our members feel that the sentences handed down to those who assault them fall short of expectations given the consequences for them personally.

What they want, and the association backs them, is a legislative framework that genuinely addresses an unacceptable reality for them, and one the courts will take notice of. The association believes that if offenders get away with lower-level assaults, there is no incentive to change their behaviour. Instead, there is a heightened chance their aggression will intensify to more serious assaults. The association wants to prevent that escalation.

It’s obvious from experience in Australia, however, that the results of mandatory sentencing are not straightforward. The state of Victoria introduced mandatory sentencing in late 2018, but figures show that while summary offence assaults against police dropped by 5.1 per cent in 2019, Crimes Act assaults increased by 10.4 per cent.

Mandatory imprisonment was introduced in Western Australia in 2009-10. Research by the Western Australia Police Union (WAPU) shows that the number of assaults on police officers has almost halved. That appears to show mandatory sentencing to have been effective, but WAPU says it could also be a reflection of a general decline in assaults on officers in public settings, such as pub fights, while “mandatory sentencing does little to minimise the risk of being assaulted when attending incidents of family and domestic violence”.

At the coalface, attacks continue.

Examples in NZ of serious assaults and sentences received

  • January 2020 – Offender sentenced to 34 months in prison for trying twice to shoot at police officers in Auckland. Had the safety catch on his rifle not prevented him from firing, one or both officers could have been seriously injured or killed.
  • April 2019 – Offender punched an officer in the head and knocked him to the ground. Charged with “assaults police” (section 193(3), maximum three years’ imprisonment). He was sentenced to 140 hours’ community work on four charges, including dangerous driving, possession of an offensive weapon and possession of utensils for cannabis.
  • December 2017 – Officer attacked in a cell in the Hastings courthouse and suffered permanent injuries. He had a titanium plate inserted to repair his broken eye socket and his left eye will never recover from double vision. He was concussed and has ongoing memory loss. The offender was sentenced to 3½ years in prison.
  • May 2017 – Offender caught mid-burglary threw an acidic white powder in the constable’s face, which burnt and blistered skin. He was charged with “aggravated wounding”, maximum penalty 14 years. At trial, the offence was reduced to “injured with intent”, carrying a maximum of seven years. The offender was convicted and sentenced to four months, served concurrently with the four-month sentence for the burglary.
  • January 2006 – Officer suffered a base skull fracture, broken collarbone, broken nose, two broken teeth and several cuts and lacerations, one of which required stitches, when a man threw a 7kg wheel rim at her, knocking her to the ground. The offender was charged with wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. He was convicted of wounding with reckless disregard, sentenced to three years and served 18 months.

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