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‘We need general arming’

Frontline support for general arming is at its highest level in a decade, confirmed in this year’s Police Association Member Survey.

The results of the NielsenIQ-run biennial 2021 Police Association Member Survey show that 73 per cent of constabulary members now believe they should be generally armed.

That’s an increase of 4 per cent since 2019 for that group, and the highest recorded since the 2010 survey.

Among all Police staff, support for general arming has also risen to 70 per cent, also the highest since 2010, and a 4 per cent increase on 2019.

Among frontline groups, support is even higher – Road Policing (79%), PST/GDB (77%), other uniform operational roles (74%) and CIB (73%).

The 2010 survey was held the year after Senior Constable Len Snee was shot dead during the Napier siege, and two years after Sergeant Derek Wootton was killed by a fleeing driver and Sergeant Don Wilkinson was shot dead. This year’s survey followed the shooting and killing of Constable Matt Hunt in 2020, but before the spate of serious firearms incidents that have occurred in the past month.

The increased support for general arming is a feature of the results that sits alongside other significant stats showing the reality of frontline policing in 2021.

  • In 2021, 13 per cent of constabulary (one in eight) said they had been threatened with a firearm at least once in the past 12 months (stable with 2019 figures). GDB frontline staff were significantly more likely to have been threatened with a firearm (25%).
  • Two in five (41%) constabulary have been threatened with another weapon, an increase from 2019 (37%).
  • There has been an increase in the proportion of constabulary attacked by an offender in the past 12 months (38% compared with 35% in 2019), the proportion injured has also increased (17% compared with 15% in 2019).
  • Nearly one in four (23%) constabulary have been involved in an incident in the past year that they believe would have been better resolved if they were carrying a firearm (compared with 20% in 2019).

With close to 6000 members completing the survey, Police Association president Chris Cahill says the message from frontline officers on general arming is clear – they don’t feel the current firearms availability is sufficient for their safety.

“Everyone accepts a move to general arming would be significant – though not necessarily the fundamental shift in police/community relations that some fear – but police officers have the right to feel safe at work,” he says.

As this debate goes on, Chris says the association will be urging Police to urgently consider the establishment of specialist teams “available at times of most risk in the most risky communities to support frontline officers dealing with the ever-present threat from armed offenders”.

The survey results also break down support for general arming by rank, length of service, location and gender.

  • Those who hold the role of constable to senior constable (75%) or sergeant (74%) are more likely to support general arming (70%).
  • Those who have been in the Police 5-9 years (76%) and 10-14 years (73%) are more likely to support general arming.
  • Support is stronger among those who work in North Shore (74%), Auckland City (74%), Counties Manukau (73%), Waikato (75%), Bay of Plenty (76%) and Canterbury (78%) districts.
  • Males (74%) are also more likely to support general arming than females (61%).
  • There is greater opposition to general arming among senior levels – senior sergeant (30% oppose compared with 25% total) or inspector and above (56%) and those whose main sworn duty is admin, planning and support (29%).

There has been a decrease in public support for general arming with 57 per cent in favour, compared with a spike up to 61 per cent in 2019. This year, public support is closer to what it was in 2010 (58 per cent).

Although the figures clearly show majority support for general arming, the debate in New Zealand has never been just about numbers. As one of only 19 countries worldwide with an officially unarmed police force, and with a tradition of “policing by consent”, New Zealand and its citizens, including police, have valued that status for generations.

Bringing scrutiny to that model, which invariably happens after a critical incident in policing, particularly the death of an officer, always comes with unease and uncertainty.

What is changing, though, and is reinforced by the association’s survey statistics, is that the environment in which New Zealand is policed is increasingly dangerous, for both police and the public.

Over 10 months last year, in response to violence and firearm threats, frontline police were required at least once a week to carry firearms as part of “temporary arming orders” issued by districts, ranging from hours to days.

The longest order was for six days in the Far North. Chris Cahill says the increase in temporary carriage reflects the number of serious firearms incidents happening across the country on an almost daily basis.

The people at the sharp end of those temporary carriage orders are our members, groups of whom – Protection Services officers and airport police – have already been routinely carrying sidearms in public, and without complaint from the public, for many years.

After the Christchurch mosque shootings, with every district on high alert, armed police were placed outside police stations and officers were required to wear a sidearm when they attended front counters.

The public is also used to seeing media images of armed offenders squads responding to incidents and people turn up in droves to see tactical displays by the AOS at community events.

Most people recognise that some level of arming is part of policing. What many may not previously have been so aware of is the sheer number of illegal firearms in the community and the willingness of criminals to use them against police.

In recent years, however, there has been more media reporting of firearms incidents, many of which are played out in public view, and with scant regard for public safety, including the killing of Matthew Hunt and the attempted murder of his colleague.

Gun fights and car-jackings are happening on our streets.

In this month’s Police News, feedback from police in favour of general arming is to the point and heartfelt.

“I’m yet to hear of a violent, drug-affected, firearm-wielding offender who agrees to be policed by consent,” writes Constable Matt Calland.

Another member says it is ironic that armed police are required to guard the prime minister, but she won’t allow members to protect themselves. “Criminals literally have better access to firearms and training than we do,” the member says.

A recurring theme is a sense of hurt. The Police executive’s mantra of looking after Our People and making frontline safety a priority is obviously falling short for some members and apprehension is creeping into frontline policing.

“There is a reason why many frontline staff are wearing their ballistic plates as a matter of course, and it’s not because they enjoy the extra weight,” writes Constable Chris Wharton, from Bay of Plenty, one of the most violent Police districts.

These members believe they should have the right to defend themselves and the public immediately, without having to bet on being able to retrieve a firearm from a lockbox in time.

Who decides?

When it comes to police operational decisions, politicians, including the prime minister of the day, cannot tell the Police commissioner what to do.

Given that both the current PM and the commissioner are in lockstep in opposition to general arming, the argument is rather a moot point.

Commissioner Andrew Coster concedes the escalation in gun-related incidents is “worrying” and “unnerving”, but he believes “the style of policing that is right for New Zealand is a generally unarmed service, and it would be a very high threshold for me to move away from that position”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Police Minister Poto Williams are on record as strongly opposing general arming. Ms Ardern believes it “would be a very sad day in New Zealand to routinely arm the New Zealand police”.

In a November 2019 tweet to rapper Tom Scott, the PM said of general arming: “Won’t happen while I’m in this job. That we do get a say in.”

However, according to section 16 of the Policing Act 2008, the “say” is the commissioner’s alone.

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