Aotearoa New Zealand is one of just a few jurisdictions worldwide where the police are not routinely armed. I have had great concerns that that was about to change.
Last year Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced that a patrols with armed police known as Armed Response Teams (ARTs) would be trialed for six months in selected areas of the country. If they were successful (what criteria would be used to measure “success”?), ARTs would be rolled out across the country. The trial ended in April.
I was one of tens of thousands of Kiwis who were sufficiently concerned about the prospect of police being routinely armed on patrol that we communicated our concerns to the police and to our Members of Parliament. It seems our concerns have been listened to.
In early April the Commissioner retired and was replaced by Andrew Coster. On the 9th of June Commissioner Coster announced that ARTs have been abandoned permanently. The pushback from the public and especially minorities has been strong. That’s good news.
In an interview on The AM Show on Wednesday, he said that police listened to feedback from the public before scrapping the ARTs. He said:
“The key issue here is having people routinely carrying firearms – I’ve made it really clear that’s not part of the policing model that I would support for New Zealand.
“Absolutely, we do have access to firearms when they’re required but the point is, 99 percent of the time when we’re interacting with the public we are not carrying a firearm and that, for me, is the style difference that’s important.
“We need to remember it was a trial and we are going to take a range of learnings from the trial, particularly in terms of how we keep evolving the skills and training available to the frontline to deal with the high-end firearms incidents.”
In an interview with Stuff, Commissioner Coster said:
“We have a model of policing by consent and that means we need the vast majority of people to see as legitimate the style in which we’re policing and it’s been clear to me that there has not been acceptance of this as an appropriate style of policing in New Zealand.”
How much of the decision to scrap the ARTs was based on public pressure and how much was based on the personal preference of the Commissioner, we’ll probably never know, but what concerns me is that our politicians considered that the arming or non-arming of the police is an “operational matter”.
As commissioner Coster said, policing is by consent, and on this basis, I believe it is important that any change in operations only occur with public consent after widespread consultation. While I don’t want to see politicians become involved with normal police activity, I believe there is room for legislation that would prevent major operational changes from occurring without parliamentary approval.