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Police Commissioner Andrew Coster

‘The most worrying issue’

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster responds to concerns about safety and arming that have been raised by members in Police News in recent months.

Acknowledging the significant and understandable concern about our safety, which I share, we need to be clear that there has been a shift in our operating environment.

While the numbers do not tell the story, it’s clear that some offenders are more willing to use violence more than they have been in the past. This is disturbing and no other issue has worried me as much as this one.

It’s easy and tempting to look for the single simple solution, but no single response will make all the difference. However, there are areas for action based on what you’ve told us through our Frontline Safety Improvement Programme.

Firstly, we must ensure training is fit for purpose. It must go beyond equipping us to use our appointments to preparing us for the risky scenarios we face. The Frontline Skills Enhancement Course is designed with this in mind and those completing it report high levels of satisfaction with increased confidence to do their jobs. This training needs to be deployed across our core frontline groups.

Secondly, there are situations where a high level of capability is required, such as that held by the AOS. Being on call, AOS cannot be immediately on the scene when situations are unfolding. This is the gap at which the Armed Response Team (ART) trial was directed. We need to make tactically trained staff more readily available on shift.

Unlike the ART, they do not need to be routinely armed, but they do need to be available. Frontline staff report feeling safer when such capability is available.

Thirdly, we need to look at our deployment model, including when single crewing may be permitted, and the intelligence we use to inform deployment. We need to find ways to make risk information more readily available, particularly around potentially risky activities such as vehicle stops. Good intelligence-directed deployment is safer because risks can be factored into deployment decisions in advance.

We are actively pursuing all of this. There is no magic wand but such changes will lead to significant improvement in safety.

General arming

Given the level of interest in general arming, I want to make it clear why the Police executive and I do not believe it is the right response to the circumstances we face. There is understandably strong feeling on this topic. It is completely natural, when imagining yourself on the wrong end of a firearm, to want to be armed. There is understandable fear considering recent events.

Individual incidents are a poor starting point for significant changes

Drawing conclusions from individual incidents can lead to poor decision making. For every incident where being armed might have improved the situation, there are others where it would likely have made things worse. A motivated offender will always have the advantage of surprise. We can point to many situations where firearms have been presented and we have safely retreated to apprehend the offender later. Being armed could readily lead to an escalation with officers on the back foot, which would almost certainly see more officers shot. We need to look across the broad range of incidents to determine what will make us safest.

International evidence

While international research evidence is incomplete, it is at best equivocal as to whether being armed improves officer safety. However, there is clear evidence that more people are shot when police are armed. Unfortunately, included in that toll are people who were not armed, although officers may have believed them to be, and those suffering from mental health issues. The impact for the families of those shot, and for the officers involved, is enormous.

Our style of policing contributes to our safety

We have a unique way of engaging with the public and the manner of this engagement is part of what keeps us safe. Rural officers know this instinctively. Often working alone, they recognise that the way they interact with an offender today not only has an immediate implication for their safety but will also shape the nature and safety of future interactions. An offender left angry and resentful towards police increases the risk for the future. Every interaction counts for our safety and that of our colleagues. We would struggle to find a jurisdiction that is inherently safer because officers are armed. In fact, we recognise that the differences in our style of policing mean we are still one of the safest jurisdictions in which to police.

I say this with full appreciation that a future incident could strongly make the argument for general arming, but I genuinely believe we are safer generally unarmed. Nothing is more important to me than the safety of our people and I am committed to making the changes required.

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