After years of being against general arming, sadly, I have concluded that the risks of not doing so are too high for both the community and police.
Previous debate has been long on emotion and short on practicalities, and is currently stalled by increasingly entrenched positions. I believe a tipping point has now been reached with:
- Extensive and often uninformed media commentary and highly vocal pressure groups
- The cowardly cold-blooded murder of Matthew Hunt
- The predicted serious increase in inter-gang violence that followed the arrival of some 501s
- The willingness of armed offenders to brazenly attack police
- The increase in demand from Police staff for general arming
- A generally unsupportive political and judicial climate
- A Police administration trying to balance operational and political realities.
It is time for a clear-headed look at the issues and to remove preconceived ideas not based on fact.
From my experience of more than 20 years being routinely armed, both in New Zealand and overseas, the average citizen has no problem with a police officer carrying a firearm. I vividly recall the media storm when the PR24 long-handle baton was first issued and then the introduction of the Taser. Over time, these options have proved to be effective and attract few negative comments. The same applies to the general arming of Police staff.
I have always been a supporter of the graduated response model, ie, that the level and type of force used by police is commensurate with the threat they are facing. A firearm is at the end of several options now available to officers. The current environment dictates they will be more likely to use a firearm. It is dangerous and irresponsible to not provide that immediate option.
Police in specific frontline units have access to firearms and until recently this model worked. The critical issue is ready access to firearms as part of personal protective equipment. One of the most potentially dangerous situations is being confronted with an armed offender when unarmed and with no possibility of accessing a firearm locked in a police vehicle.
Former Police legal adviser Superintendent Les McCarthy made it clear that Crimes Act defences to the use of force are subjective and not objective. It is what is in the mind of an officer at the time of the use of force, dealing with a situation on the information available, that will determine the type and level of force used. On the rare occasion that lethal force has been used by Police, an independent inquiry has later found that on every occasion it was justified.
Health and safety laws put the onus on employers to provide a safe working environment and the Police executive is not exempt. Every effort must be made to reduce or mitigate the risks Police staff face, with a focus on training and the availability of the right personal protection equipment
I am sure many have asked, “What will it take before police officers are generally armed?” Inevitably, and sadly, there will be further police deaths, but will that be enough to tip the balance to general arming, and what more can be done to try to prevent loss of life?
A serious look at underlying issues that lead offenders to use violence against law-enforcement staff, including the role of mental health issues.
Research and planning for both the redeployment of the ART (armed response team) model and general arming. This is inevitable. It will bring New Zealand in line with most overseas countries.
A serious look at double crewing. Expecting staff to work alone in frontline positions is no longer tenable.
The extensive use of body cameras, particularly the model that can be attached to a firearm or Taser holster, which would protect both Police staff and offenders.
The strengthening of laws and penalties to deter the use of firearms by criminals.
The setting up of a long-overdue firearms register, and removal of a larger number and type of weapons that are in no way considered sporting firearms.
An increase in relevant training for Police staff, especially those who are likely to be armed.
We need a clear plan on how to advance this issue with the overarching principle of staff and public safety. Ready access to firearms plays a small but significant part in this. Yes, there are risks attached to this strategy, but these do not outweigh the benefits.
Ray van Beynen spent almost 40 years with New Zealand Police, retiring at the rank of detective superintendent, and has extensive experience with the AOS (armed offenders squad) and the STG (special tactics group) and expertise in transnational and organised crime. He is the author of Zero Alpha, the official history of the AOS, and has an MA in terrorism, safety and security.