Police are right to worry about their safety on the job and the shooting in West Auckland yesterday is an awful reminder of the risk every officer faces and the stakes when something goes wrong.
Of course there is never a ‘good time’ for Police to be ambushed and killed. We’re fortunate these events in New Zealand are relatively rare. But the timing of this tragedy is especially pertinent. With ongoing protests around the World about Police brutality and racial profiling, and fresh off the back of the Police Armed Response Team trial here, it adds another layer of complexity and tension in the debate about arming more of our Police.
I went through hundreds of pages of documents released to journalists under the Official Information Act and a couple of things about the Armed Response Team trial were very clear.
The trial was rushed. It was poorly planned. From an academic perspective it was woefully designed. And the communities affected most by officers with guns on the beat weren’t consulted.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t have been a trial. Or that a better balance couldn’t be found between making Police officers and the public safe.
Because Police do face risks. Here’s what the Auditor-General said in the official report into gun buyback scheme.
“There is no reliable picture of how many newly prohibited firearms, magazines, and parts remain in the community.”
When I went to the Police National Headquarters and interviewed Police Commissioner Andy Coster last week, he told me frankly that no one knows how many illegal guns are still on New Zealand’s streets.
Imagine knowing that in the back of your mind, as you strapped on a blue vest and headed out on the beat. It would hardly inspire confidence.
Police deserve to feel as safe as is possible. The Public deserves to feel as safe as is possible. Of course there are mixed views on both sides, but generally when it comes to the debate over arming Police, the perceived safety of one party comes at the expense of the other. Many Police want to guns in order to feel more safe. Many people, especially in Māori and Pacifica communities, feel less safe when Police are armed. Here’s a line that stuck out to me from those files we obtained on the ART trial. It’s from the Evidenced Based Policing Centre:
“There is an intrinsic trade-off between the issues of police safety and public trust. Police are feeling more threatened on the job and require means to effectively protect themselves. However, this need must also be weighed against how changes to the way police are armed will affect public trust and confidence.”
Now we don’t know much detail about the West Auckland shooting and I don’t want to speculate. It’s possible that if the officers were armed, the outcome would sadly have been exactly the same. It’s also possible the person responsible didn’t use an illegal gun. We don’t know yet.
But I do think we have a responsibility as a society to continue conversations about how best to strike the balance between making Police safe and making the public safe.
The problem with the ART trial wasn’t the question of whether we should have specialist armed units to respond to gun crime. As yesterday’s event sadly proves - that’s a legitimate question that deserves careful, informed consideration and scrutiny. The problem was the process. I think the way it was rolled out actually let down officers on the front line. In scrapping ARTs, there is a risk that the central issue in question has been pushed off the table as well.
And no one in any profession deserves to die on the job.