New Zealand Police not arming themselves

On Tuesday last week a man was shot in Richmond, Christchurch. The shooting happened after he fired a shot gun at police officers pursuing him whilst in a stolen vehicle. The vehicle had run over road spikes laid by the police to stop the vehicle whilst on Breezes Road, but it continued to be driven until it reached Evelyn Cousins Place.

Following the shooting, Canterbury Police armed their officers until the second man was found and taken into custody, on Monday. Despite the short duration of them being armed it was not part of a larger move and New Zealand Police stated that one of the great joys in New Zealand is not having to have officers armed, and that this is the way they would like to keep it.

This is understandable. Arming the constabulary raises tensions with the population and lessens the trust that is needed between communities and their lawn enforcement. There are also good reasons, based on overseas experience about why we should desist arming the police. So far in 2019, 162 people have been shot dead by police in the United States.

162 people – given the proliferation of guns in the United States and the fact that their population is about 65 times larger than New Zealand’s, maybe that should not be hugely surprising. However as we shall see there are several factors that need to be considered

When I look at police shootings here, I am grateful for the training New Zealand police receive. There are several very good reasons why I hope I never see New Zealand police officers routinely wear fire arms:

  1. The New Zealand police are trained differently and are taught to understand that the fire arm is the weapon of last resort. Because it is purpose built for delivering a potentially lethal injury, the threshhold for using a gun are correspondingly higher than that for using a taser, or lesser device such as a baton or pepper spray. I hope it stays that way.
  2. There is a certain degree of risk to the credibility of authorities when they play the fear card. New Zealand is a nation that does not like to be ruled by fear. If New Zealanders think authorities are purposefully playing on fear, the authorities will lose respect and any measures seen as punitive will become the target of ridicule. By giving authorities the means to use lethal force, the red line in the sand between credible fear and scare mongering comes a giant step closer.
  3. The gun culture in America makes things much more dangerous than it does in New Zealand. Because the Second Amendment explicitly permits Americans to use firearms for self defence, and because the National Rifle Association holds significant clout with conservatives who often complain about Americans having their gun rights eroded, it is a highly politicized issue which can cause politicians to tread unnecessarily warily around. We do not have that antagonism here around fire arms and there is no reason to start now.
  4. There is a degree of moral integrity at stake when a police officer shoots someone – for arguments sake – fatally. Because if that person was not armed, or in possession of something less lethal than a fire arm, unless the officer had expended the non-lethal options at their disposal and had failed to subdue the suspect, that officer has potentially committed manslaughter (giving the officer the benefit of the doubt that they did not intend to kill). How can one ascertain the suitability of an officer to possess firearms?
  5. The Police Complaints Authority and the system of accountability it uses to ensure that complaints against the New Zealand Police can be assessed have been found wanting with current cases. One where a formal complaint is laid for the accidental shooting of a homeless man high on methamphetamine could expose it and New Zealand’s reputation as a safe place with a reliable police force at risk. We cannot afford that.

Despite the concerns that New Zealand police may become like their American counterparts, I think the public scrutiny on the police force and their reactivity to that scrutiny is a good thing. The certainty that individual shootings are automatically referred to the Police Conduct Authority means officers have good reason to be careful about the use of force. However, a person high on drugs cannot be reasoned with, at least not safely. At that point force is necessary.

But in the Christchurch case, the offender reached for a gun and discharged it several times leaving the police with no choice but to use potentially deadly force.

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