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President's Column: Balance risk and protection

We cannot close 2019 without thinking back to March 15, which will forever be the defining moment of this year.

Like many of you, the memory of that tragedy goes hand in hand with the response from New Zealanders, from the prime minister to the extraordinary young people of Christchurch.

That you, our members, were at the forefront of this empathetic and professional response is something we should all be proud of.

The reality for many is the ongoing grief of losing loved ones and coping with injuries. For others, it is in taking action to make our communities safer.

The immediate move by the Government to ban the types of weapons used in mass shootings was a major step in that direction and I urge you to ignore the naysayers on this subject. The removal of 38,000 of the most deadly weapons prevents them ever ending up in the hands of dangerous criminals, and that has to make New Zealand a safer place.

Part two of the country’s firearms reform is under way, which will help address the Police Association’s biggest concern – the proliferation of firearms in the hands of criminals and their increasing willingness to use these weapons.

Police management has this year accepted what the association has been saying for some time on this subject, and it has now upgraded its firearms data-gathering processes. One initiative to counter the ugly menace of illegal firearms proliferation has been the pilot of armed response teams (ARTs) in Counties Manukau, Hamilton and Christchurch. For some in our communities, this has sparked concern that a significant change in policing is under way in New Zealand to the detriment of certain groups.

I understand these concerns, but, equally, I know the escalating risk that illicit guns already pose throughout New Zealand. Official data shows that firearms are now being presented at a member of the public or a police officer on an almost daily basis. For many Kiwis that is tough to get their heads around, but we can’t pretend it isn’t happening. It is real, and a significant number of the firearms recovered are found to be loaded.

The ARTs are designed to respond at the highest level to the most dangerous of these situations and we should be reassured by that.

What some commentators have missed is that the majority of officers attending incidents already have firearms in their vehicles, to be used when needed. ART officers are more highly trained specialists who can respond to threats immediately, creating a safer environment for communities, police officers and offenders.

Part of the anti-ART commentary has focused on a potential increased risk of officers shooting Māori in disproportionate numbers, due to Police conscious or unconscious bias. They cite the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system as evidence for their concern, and sometimes overlay this argument with comparisons to the United States.

There are vast differences in the policing systems of the US and New Zealand. One of the most obvious is that we have a single police force with one consistent training system, whereas the US has nearly 18,000 police departments. This results in myriad police training systems and approaches to their communities.

I’m not suggesting that police don’t play a part in the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system, but it is clear that by the time officers are involved with Māori offenders, much of society has already failed them. That includes whānau, the education system, the health system, including mental health, and others.

In most cases, police are left to deal with the result of these failures and it troubles me to hear claims that the ARTs, which are designed to keep us all safe, could instead increase the danger to Māori.

Māori are also over-represented as victims who need police assistance, some of which will be provided by these ARTs.

It’s a heavy topic to end the year, but it is a timely one and deserves reflection.

I hope you all keep safe over the festive season and have the opportunity to spend some happy times with your families and friends. I know many of you will be working and your holidays will come later. I am sure your fellow Kiwis will recognise your commitment when they see you in their communities and out on the roads.

Ngā mihi nui

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