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Dr Muriel Newman

Arming the Police

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Last Tuesday a routine Police call-out left two Police officers with gunshot wounds and a Police dog dead. In the drug-related fracas, one officer had his jaw shattered by a bullet, while the other officer took a bullet in his thigh – just missing his femoral artery. Gage, a six year old German Shepherd, was shot and killed trying to protect the officers.

This event brings the number of officers shot in the line of duty over the last two years to nine. Three officers have died from gunshot wounds since 2008. Gage was the 23rd Police dog to have been killed in the line of duty and the sixth to have been shot dead.

Attacks on Police have been getting worse both in frequency and severity. According to Police statistics, in 1999/00 there were 1,965 assaults on Police with a total of 59 involving a weapon, 19 of them firearms. By 2008/09, the number of assaults had risen by 26 percent to 2,481, with the number involving weapons increasing by 73 percent to 102, and the number with firearms doubling to 41.[1]

These figures are indicative of the relentless rise in violent crime within society. Over that same two year period the total number of violent crimes recorded by Police increased from 52,892 to 62,874 – an 18 percent increase – with serious assaults, which make up over a third of recorded violent crimes, increasing by 21 percent.

Without a doubt, drugs and organised crime are key drivers of this increasing violence. Firearms are now commonplace within the illicit drugs industry. The question we should be asking ourselves is whether we think the Police should have greater powers to protect themselves and the public?

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Greg O’Connor the President of the Police Association, strongly believes that individual Police officers need better access to firearms – if they are in a situation where they may need them. In his article The ability to respond quickly is imperative, he states:

“What we are hearing from our frontline officers is that they want better availability of firearms. It is no use having a weapon back at the station when you are going into a potentially life-threatening situation. Fourteen percent of officers have been threatened with a firearm in the last year and yet there has been a consistent reluctance to discuss the matter of police access to firearms.

“The argument that criminals will arm themselves if police officers are armed is naïve. The criminals are already armed. They arm themselves to protect their valuable illegal trade in drugs and other activities. They arm to protect themselves against other criminals and unfortunately the police often end up as the ‘collateral damage’.

“The question is this: If our police officers cannot be kept safe from violent criminals then how on Earth can the public expect to be safe? Police officers need the tools to do what they swore an oath to do – protect the public – it really is as simple as that.”

The Police in New Zealand, like police in the United Kingdom are routinely unarmed. In Australia, the US, Canada, and many European countries they are armed, and carry a range of weapons including handguns, with tasers and rifles also readily available. It goes without saying that where police have greater access to firearms, there is a far greater emphasis on weapons training. And it also needs to be stated – to put this debate into context – that in those jurisdictions where police are routinely armed, most officers go through their entire career without ever having to draw a gun whilst on duty.

The arguments in favour of routinely arming the police include the following points:

  • · Arming the police is a strong deterrent to criminal behaviour.
  • · An increase in armed violence demands an appropriate response from the police if they are to avoid being seen by the criminal fraternity as a soft touch.
  • · When violence is commonplace the general public not only feel safer when they see armed police, but they also believe that officers should have the ability to protect themselves since they are risking their lives in the public good.
  • · When police officers are armed the balance of power shifts from the criminals to the police and often situations that would have escalated into gun violence can be resolved without any firearms being discharged at all. At the moment it is the criminals with the superior armoury.

The arguments against arming the police are mainly focused on concerns that such action would lead to an escalation in gun crime. The reasoning is that criminals who presently do not carry weapons are more likely arm themselves for protection if the police are armed, causing an escalation in gun related crime and the possibility of harm to innocent bystanders.

The call for a more onerous gun registration system is also promoted as a way of reducing gun crime, but since criminals who own and use guns are unlikely to register them anyway, this can be seen to be a bureaucratic and ineffective crackdown on law-abiding citizens, that ties up the police and keeps them from more pressing duties.

This whole discussion raises serious questions about what is causing this increase in violent crime in New Zealand society. In addressing this, it needs to be stated at the outset that the drivers of crime are complex, involving a wide range of factors. These include social change: the breakdown of the family and the rise in fatherlessness; the loss of community values and moral standards; the failure to equip disadvantaged children with an education that will enable them to succeed in the workforce; the growth in the “underclass”, in career welfarism, and in taxpayer-funded criminality; and the ascendancy of a serious drug culture. On top of that, there has been a systemic failure of police leadership resulting in the situation where many classes of crime provide lucrative rewards for perpetrators with little danger of being caught: police statistics show that while the resolution rate for recorded violent crime in 2008/09 was over 77 percent, the resolution rate for car conversions was only 19 percent, for burglary 16 percent, and for theft from a car 6 percent.

Last year, a Police Association survey asked police at the coalface, “What do you believe is the most significant threat to law and order emerging in New Zealand?” Forty-one percent identified gangs and organised crime – especially the gang-controlled methamphetamine and drugs trade – as the most significant threat. This was head and shoulders above all other concerns with the next biggest being the effectiveness of the courts and justice system at 12 percent, and increasing violence at 6 percent.[2]

As a result of these concerns, the Police Association undertook an in-depth investigation into organised crime, publishing the results in a series of articles in Police News.[3] They explained how organised crime networks, include not only gangs, but also business interests that are engaged in both lawful as well as criminal activities. With Police estimating that the methamphetamine trade alone is worth up to $1.5 billion annually, money laundering is clearly big business in New Zealand: “We have reason to believe several high profile and extremely wealthy business people and politically active individuals in New Zealand are associating with people who are involved in organised crime, at least through social and apparently legitimate business interaction.”

Their investigation examines corruption in State institutions, claiming that the large numbers of Mongrel Mob and Black Power gang members in prisons effectively gives control over prisoner behaviour to the gangs, who direct whether the gangs “provide protection, intimidation, violence or even execution of any person who may be sent to prison”. They claim this power is used to control criminals and business partners outside of the prison, as well as being used to extort prison cell ‘rentals’ – which has become such an important source of income for organised crime that “gangs now ensure they have trusted ‘managers’ imprisoned in each prison to run their business.”

The investigation goes on to state that “During the late 1990s, official reports cited at least 26 examples of corruption of officials across at least the following organisations: Department of Corrections; Department of Courts; Department of Social Welfare; Local councils; Land Transport Safety Authority; New Zealand Employment Service; New Zealand Immigration Service; New Zealand Police; and Work and Income NZ. Our information gives us strong reason to believe that individuals are now being strategically placed by organised crime in employment in State institutions. Again, this has been the pattern in every other market economy in the world, including Australia. Usually it takes a major scandal and subsequent inquiry to lift the lid on the extent of corruption, even within a very limited area of government. Yet examples of corruption detected in New Zealand are quickly dismissed as isolated individual criminality.”

In the Listener article, “The fall of Mr Asia”, David Lomas back in 2004 outlined events that led to the exposure of the Kiwi-based heroin drug ring that had ‘left thousands of lives in addicted ruin’. In the article he stated: “I also learned from Auckland police their frustrations over the inaction of the police hierarchy. The boys in ‘bullshit tower’ couldn’t comprehend a multinational, multi-million-dollar crime group, detectives said, so as a way of embarrassing resources out of their bosses, they leaked the story to the Star.”[4]

Police have been warning their bosses about the dangers of the methamphetamine trade and organised crime for years. They have explained that far more sophisticated methods of policing are needed if they are to be effective in fighting this extremely serious threat to New Zealand society. Until now their calls have largely been ignored.

However, if the current call for greater Police access to firearms is in response to the arming of those within the lucrative drug trade, then shouldn’t our political masters admit that since the problem is getting worse not better, they should take the drugs issue more seriously than they do at present and give it a priority that it currently does not enjoy. And shouldn’t we extend the debate regarding the arming of our police to the underlying reasons why frontline officers see the need to arm. Perhaps this is the real issue that needs addressing.

1.NZ Police, Annual Report 2008/09
2.NZPA, Organised Crime Biggest Threat to law and Order in New Zealand
3.Police News, Understanding Organised Crime; Understanding Organised Crime – Part 1.   Part 3
4.Listener, The Fall of Mr Asia