Cat MacLennan: Aotearoa is no place for armed police

Cat MacLennan: Aotearoa is no place for armed police

The mission of the New Zealand Police is to make this country the safest nation in the world.

To achieve that aim, there is one important step the police need to take at the end of this month. When the evaluation of the Armed Response Teams’ trial is completed, the police should announce that the pilot was unsuccessful and the teams are being disbanded and will never be mobilised again.

Routinely armed police on our streets do not make us safer: in fact, they make life more dangerous both for the public and for the police.

So, let’s examine the police rationale for trialling ARTs, and compare it with what actually happened during the pilot.

Former Police Commissioner Mike Bush on 18 October 2019 announced a six-month trial of Armed Response Teams in Counties-Manukau, the Waikato and Canterbury. He said that the teams would be drawn from the Armed Offenders Squad and would support the police’s tactical capabilities on the frontline to minimise the risk of harm to the public and to staff. ARTs would complement the police’s initial response to critical or high-risk incidents by being on duty at peak demand times seven days a week.

Bush stated that the teams would be routinely armed and ready to support the police frontline with any events or incidents requiring enhanced tactical capabilities. He described ARTs as “a standard feature across policing jurisdictions internationally” and said that, following the 15 March 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks, the operating environment had changed and the threat level remained at medium.

Bush stated that the three locations selected for the trial had been chosen as they had the highest numbers of firearms seized, located and surrendered, as well as having the largest Armed Offenders Squad groups to support the pilot. During the six-month period, ARTs would focus on responding to events posing a significant risk to the public or staff, and would also back up the execution of high-risk search warrants, high-profile public events and prevention activities.

Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims in November reiterated that the teams would focus on responding to events where a significant risk was posed to the public or to staff. He stated that ARTs would allow high-risk events to be de-escalated and defused with the least amount of force possible.

Current Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said at the end of the pilot in April 2020 that the teams had been trialled to support the police’s frontline tactical capabilities. Everything the police did was to keep New Zealanders safe and feeling safe, he said. Coster stated that the pilot was about having specialist police personnel immediately ready to deploy to critical or high-risk incidents, supporting the frontline when enhanced tactical capabilities were required.

So, how do those words measure up against the reality ? All three police top brass emphasised that the teams would be used in high-risk situations, to protect the public and the police. But, that is not what actually occurred. In fact, the teams were most often deployed for simple traffic stops – a staggering 1406 times in their first five weeks. ARTs were also used on 339 occasions for bail checks, 224 times for basic inquiries, 223 times for suspicious activity and 43 times for burglar alarms.

Not one of those deployments fitted the rationale provided by the police for the creation of the teams – high-risk and with public or police safety in jeopardy.

That was also the case in November, when an ART pulled over a car linked to a dishonesty offence on a suburban Hamilton street. Video footage showed at least one of the two officers carried a Glock pistol.

Responding to media queries about the stop, TIms said that the incident was not a routine roadside stop, but rather a “targeted stop of a vehicle linked to dishonesty offending.” He said that there was a warrant to arrest out for the driver, who was known to carry firearms. Tims said that the driver appeared in court charged with breaching conditions.

Although we do not know the full details of the case, it appears difficult to justify the driver being stopped by an ART. The driver was charged only with breaching conditions – that is a charge relating to conditions imposed by a court. Although the vehicle was described as being “linked to dishonesty offending,” there was no dishonesty charge, no charge relating to the vehicle, and no charge relating to firearms.

The police explanation of the need for the pilot also failed to warn of, or explain, the reason for the sheer volume of ART callouts which occurred during the pilot. Between 28 October and 2 December 2019, the ARTs were deployed 2641 times, compared with the Armed Offenders Squad average callout rate of 1.3 times a day across Counties-Manukau, the Waikato and Canterbury in 2018/ 2019. The new teams were called out 75 times a day, meaning that they attended more jobs in a week than the AOS on average did in a year.

In addition to that, the ARTs failed to stick to the areas chosen for the pilot, instead ranging into other locations. The trial regions were Counties-Manukau, the Waikato and Canterbury. However, the first location at which an ART was deployed was in Wairoa, almost immediately after Bush’s announcement of the trial. A team was sent there after shots were fired at a police officer’s home. Wairoa is not even close to any of the designated pilot areas.

In the first five weeks of the pilot, ARTs were deployed almost twice a day in Waitematā and Auckland City – also areas not covered by the pilot. Police operations support commander Inspector Freda Grace described it as unsurprising that the teams had operated outside the trial districts. She stated that the pilot boundaries were arbitrary and, if there was an incident elsewhere, the public would expect police to attend, even if it was technically outside the trial area.

I completely disagree with Grace. I think what the public would expect is that, if a trial is being held, the parameters of the pilot will be adhered to, not arbitrarily extended without notification or consultation.

And lack of consultation is another key concern about the ARTs. The decision to pilot them was made by the police’s Executive Leadership Board on 30 August and the trial started on 28 October. Māori and Pasifika began expressing concerns about the pilot as soon as they learned of it.

Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group member Julia Whaipooti, of Ngāti Porou, and Māori justice advocate Sir Kim Workman, of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa and Rangitāne, have filed for an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing over the ARTs, citing lack of consultation and their disproportionate impact on Māori. Counties-Manukau has a high Māori and Pasifika population, and the Waikato has a high Māori population. Workman said that, to his knowledge, there had been no consultation about the teams and that was a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Māori are almost eight times more likely to be subjected to force by the police than Pākehā, and seven times more likely to be charged with criminal offences. Between 2009 and 2019, two-thirds of those shot by the police were Māori or Pasifika.

Matua Moana Jackson asked 1823 Māori about whether they would support more regular arming of the police, and 93 per cent of them opposed such a move. Mirroring that, a survey by Action Station of 1155 Māori and Pasifika people found that 85 per cent did not support the ART trial, while 87 per cent reported that knowing armed police were in their community made them feel less safe.

Pushing ahead with a pilot which people specifically state makes them feel less safe runs directly counter to the police purpose of operating in a way that “makes people feel safe.” It is also difficult to reconcile with the commitments spelled out on the police website. These state that the police act with good faith and respect for the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and that working with Māori is essential to police success. The values section says that it is only together that the police can build the support and relationships necessary to reverse the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system.

The website further states that the police seek understanding of, and consider the experiences and perspectives of, those they serve. It says that better results are obtained when the police appreciate situations from the point of view of the people they serve and work alongside. The partnerships section pledges that police will work together to achieve collective impact with iwi and communities. All of this is contradicted by the speed and lack of consultation with which the pilot was begun.

It also appears extremely doubtful that the trial will be able to be rigorously and accurately evaluated, as information from its first week showed that officers had been “exceedingly poor” at completing survey tools and there were major discrepancies in the data provided. Questions relating to staff safety were not answered and no useable information was obtained. Although a second report said there had been improvements, the data provided was still far from complete.

Further, the speed with which the trial was rolled out meant that there was not enough time to set up a detailed baseline of pre-trial armed response operations and Armed Offender Squad callouts, meaning that a thorough comparison of the pilot against the earlier regime will not be able to be made.

If all of this was not enough to raise serious concerns and explain why the ARTs are a very bad idea, the current international context provides further cause for alarm. Lawyer and former Australian Defence Force officer, John Sutton, told ABC Radio National last year that creeping militarisation of the police was part of a trend in English-speaking democracies, beginning in the United States and accelerating after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In the United States, the 1033 Program authorises the Department of Defense to distribute “surplus” military equipment to local police departments.  The scheme was set up in 1990 to allow the department to transfer property to federal and state agencies for use in anti-drug activities, but criminal justice researcher Jeremiah Mosteller described this as now being conducted on an industrial scale, with $6 billion worth of equipment having been transferred to 8600 law enforcement agencies across the United States.

Mosteller said that items included night-vision goggles, gas masks, military aircraft, armoured vehicles, machine guns, grenade launchers and bayonets. The public only became aware of the extent of this military arming when police arrived at the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, following the police killing of Michael Brown. Police appeared in an armoured vehicle, wearing military camouflage and carrying M14 assault rifles. The public backlash led then-President Barack Obama to scale back the 1033 Program – a decision subsequently reversed by President Trump.

Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, Jonathan Mummolo, in 2018 studied the use of Special Weapons and Tactics teams by 9000 United States’ law enforcement agencies between 2000 and 2008, including data on every SWAT deployment in Maryland over five years. He found that militarised police units were more often deployed in communities with large African American populations.

The research concluded that militarised policing failed to enhance officer safety or reduce local crime. Further, seeing militarised police in news reports might diminish the reputation of the police among the public. Mummolo said that the routine use of militarised police tactics by local agencies threatened to increase the historic tensions between marginalised groups and the state, with no detectable public safety benefit.

Northeastern-Harvard research released in April 2020 reported that African Americans were at greater risk of being killed by the police, even though they were less likely to pose an objective threat to law enforcement. The study examined shooting deaths by police in 27 states in 2014-15 and found that African Americans were victims at a higher rate than their proportion of the population, with the disparity being the most extreme in cases involving unarmed victims posing no apparent threat to the police. 1000 people a year are shot dead by the police in the United States.

ABC Radio National reported that frontline police officers in Queensland and Victoria and specialist units across Australia were being trained in military-style tactics and thinking. Sutton described the convergence of the police and the military as worrying because, typically, a close ideological and operational alliance between the two was associated with repressive regimes.

In New Zealand, the police are currently evaluating the ART trial. Now is the time for the Government to step in and make it plain that the teams should never be deployed again.

Our system of government is based on a separation of powers between different state organs, with them functioning independently and each acting as a check on the others. For that reason, politicians do not tell the police how to carry out their day-to-day roles. That would open the way to corruption and the use of the police by politicians to intimidate political enemies and stifle dissent.

The Policing Act 2008 spells out the relationship between the Minister of Police and the Commissioner of Police. Section 16 states that the commissioner is responsible to the minister for carrying out the functions and duties of the police, the general conduct of the police, tendering advice to the Government and giving effect to any lawful ministerial directions.

The section goes on to provide that the commissioner is not responsible to, and must act independently of, any Minister of the Crown regarding law and order decisions relating to individuals and groups. Professor of Law and Prichard Wilson Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, Kent Roach, in a 2017 article said that this definition of police independence embraced core police law enforcement independence but went a step beyond that and demonstrated that it was possible to codify police independence.

Roach described the South Australian and New Zealand legislation as precise and clear in their attempts to define the legitimate scope of political direction and police independence from direction.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this week that the Government had raised concerns with the police commissioner about the ART trial when it began. She said the decision to run the pilot was an operational one and so was not something the Government had been consulted on before it began. She stated that it was important not to interfere with police operational matters, but the Government did not consider the general arming of police a matter it could not take a view on.

“I’ve always had a very firm view on the general arming of police, I’m totally opposed, always will be. The police commissioner himself has also said he shares that view.”

Ardern also said that the Government was aware that the commissioner was about to make a judgment on the future of ARTs and “We’ve inputted into that.”

Coster said he was committed to keeping “a generally unarmed service” and the teams did not fire any shots during the six-month trial.

The police had no mandate to begin the ART pilot. They did not consult before starting it, and they have provided the public with no thorough and convincing evidence of the need for it. Indeed, the way in which the trial unfolded contradicted most of what we were told at the start about the teams.

The commissioner cannot pledge that he is committed to unarmed police while trialling ARTs. They operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week and were deployed on average 75 times a day in their first five weeks. If the teams were made permanent and deployed around the entire country, Aotearoa would in fact have an armed police force.

I do not agree with Ardern that the ART trial is an operational matter. The everyday arming of police is a major move away from this country’s history of unarmed policing, and not something that the police should be left to make a final determination on. It is a crucial decision about the type of police force and system of law and order that we want in Aotearoa.

That is an issue that the public and politicians should decide, not the police.


Cat MacLennan is a journalist, lawyer and researcher

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.