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Greg O'Connor

The Ability to Respond Quickly is Imperative

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The recent incident in Christchurch in which two police officers were shot and seriously wounded and a police dog killed once again highlighted the risks that frontline police officers face going about what most would consider routine tasks.

Five officers in the last year have been gunned down while executing search warrants.

Nine officers have been shot in the last two years. That’s nine too many in my book.

Recently, I found myself in the UK with local police during the Cumbria massacre, which claimed the lives of 12 innocent people before the gunman killed himself.

Given the debate over future armed response, training and availability, and the interest in the UK model, it was good to see it in action. It was fortunate that they had a nuclear power plant nearby guarded by armed nuclear police, who were able to respond while the local force waited a very long time for the Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs) to arrive from the other side of the county. With such plants thin on the ground here, it was a good example of why we should be very careful about importing overseas policing initiatives without fully understanding the different context in which they were developed. For example, most UK police are never trained to use firearms.

We should use the best ideas from wherever they are developed, but it’s extremely important to understand the context.

It was through our International Council of Police Representative Associations (ICPRA) contacts that Norway’s recent arming debate came to my attention. Norway has an unarmed national police, the same population and the same ‘tyranny of distance’’ problems we have. They also have lockboxes in their patrol cars containing firearms so that police officers are not going into extremely dangerous situations without access to the tools that could save their life, that of a colleague or members of the public. The officers have the discretion to draw those firearms after assessing the risk in each situation.

Their experience is highly relevant. Police have since visited Norway as well and we are heartened that Police are looking seriously at giving better accessibility to firearms to frontline officers. It’s not before time.

Officers, as was the case in the Napier siege, are often called upon to respond to out-of-the-ordinary and potentially life-threatening incidents that happen in the blink of an eye, regardless of where they work. In Napier, Youth Aid Officers were amongst the first responders. It is imperative that Police make sure that all officers are trained in all aspects of defensive tactics to ensure they’re kept as safe as possible and are in a position to respond accordingly to protect the public and themselves.

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.

We had the Prime Minister John Key saying after the shooting of Senior Constable Len Snee that this was not a cause for arming and the Commissioner of Police Howard Broad has said ‘not on my watch’: Well the question we would ask is this: ‘What would it take?’ It’s time for actions not words. As a society, we need to look a little harder in the mirror. We can no longer fiddle while Rome burns.

The Police Association wants to see a situation where individual officers have better access to firearms should they be in a situation where they may need them. We want to see a situation where those officers are trusted to make the decision to draw arms if they deem the risks justify it.

I think it is almost inevitable that at some time in the future police will be generally armed. It may well take a major event where members of the public are killed when police aren’t armed to bring about a sea change in current thinking.

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’.”

There is a sort of squeamishness amongst Police bosses on the arming issue, which needs addressing. This issue is not going to go away – just like the violent criminals aren’t going away.

Yes, we will have to end up shooting people. Hopefully, the Taser will lessen those incidents, but it is the reality of the situation and the society that we live in. Police are the only ones who can use lethal force and there are times when we just have to use it in defence of our officers and the public who we have sworn to protect. That is the reality of the changing face of the society that we now live in.

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.