Wednesday, 31 Oct 2007

Case against arming police

The Press | Monday, 1 October 2007
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We all appreciate the police often have very difficult situations to handle and they deserve community support in facing these situations. However, we also have some of the most vulnerable members of our community who face very difficult situations and struggle to cope.

Some years back a neighbour of mine with mental health problems had a violent argument with his flatmate about missing stereo speakers.

He went round the flat ranting, raving and smashing windows. It was 3am and when the police arrived he was outside the house still on a smashing spree.

The police handled the situation really well. They kept well back and spoke respectfully and professionally to him. They calmed him down and called in mental health support whereupon they all went off to the police station to sort it out.

I don't think that would happen today. Instead, he would be batoned, pepper-sprayed or shot.

In my observation there have been unfortunate changes to policing over the past 30 years. It appears the average age of police officers has decreased and certainly in our low-income areas here in Auckland the situation is dire. A police inspector in South Auckland told me last year that a very high proportion of their officers have less than six months experience and at some of the small stations it was common for a new recruit on his or her first posting to be shown the ropes and given on-the-job training by another officer who themselves had only six months experience.

Alongside youth and inexperience, I've personally noticed the lack of tact and diplomacy in defusing difficult or potentially difficult situations. It's becoming far too common for police officers to take a black and white view, and instead of using good judgment and common sense their reactions inflame the situation. Ready access to arms makes such situations all the more volatile and dangerous for everyone.

The police killing of a man armed with a hammer in Christchurch last week provides powerful evidence against further arming of the police with either guns or Tasers. There are enough undisputed facts in the public arena to know this situation should not have ended in a man's death.

The Police Association says that had the police officers in Christchurch been armed with Tasers they could have avoided the use of lethal force. This is disingenuous. We don't need police to use the tragic death of this man as a public relations exercise to demand Tasers. The Taser was never to be deployed as an alternative to guns. It was proposed as an alternative to pepper spray or batons which were the first but unused options in the most recent shooting tragedy.

It's not too cynical to say the outcome of the police investigation is predictable. They will deem their officer acted in self- defence irrespective of eye-witnesses. They will say their officer thought his life was at risk and that's all that matters. End of story. The police will once again have investigated their own with nominal oversight by the under-resourced and intentionally ineffectual Police Complaints Authority.

In the meantime, there are five arguments which give a rock-solid case against arming the police with Tasers or guns.

* Tasers and guns encourage a culture of violence in policing. They both introduce another element of violence into the relationship between police and the general public that we don't need. New Zealand has a long history of relatively unarmed police which has served this country much better than the culture of heavy violence in policing in the home of the Tasers – the United States. Our police and community are safer as a result. Police in the US are at far greater risk of injury or death than police in New Zealand and we should aim to keep it that way.

* Police inability to follow guidelines. Pepper-spraying was introduced into New Zealand some years back and is now being used willy-nilly around the country. It is used routinely as a first resort simply because it is there. Just having weapons such as Tasers and guns readily available means police will bypass other options much more quickly and guidelines for their use would become blurred and irrelevant. In the Stephen Wallace shooting, for example, while the police officer was predictably acquitted of the charges laid against him, the police would not have been carrying guns that night if they had followed police guidelines in the first place.

* Tasers and guns are both lethal. Tasers are often thought of as non-lethal but the death toll from their use is rising rapidly. More than 167 people have died after being Tasered in the US and Canada since September 1999. Despite the police spin put on these deaths, each of these people would be alive today had they not been tasered.

* Community control of police powers. Police have been given very broad powers of arrest and restraint on freedom and so it's very important that the community has democratic control and scrutiny of police activity. However, in the case of Tasers the police made a unilateral decision to trial them and only called for "community consultation" after the event. Despite this the Government didn't raise an eyebrow. There are plenty of examples around the world of police forces that have become a law unto themselves and are outside effective democratic control. It's our job to ensure this doesn't happen in New Zealand.

* Police priorities: public confidence in the police has taken a real hammering over recent years with police at the highest levels charged with rape, fraud, theft and violence offences. The police priority must surely be to rebuild community confidence and trust rather than see it eroded further.

We don't need police routinely armed with Tasers or guns.

The more difficult the situations the police may face, the greater the need for training, professionalism and the following of guidelines.

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