Editorial: Arming police is fraught with risk

The four attacks on police officers during the Christmas period were cowardly and appalling acts of violence. They have highlighted the dangers police face whenever they step out on patrol.

In Dargaville on Christmas Day, a constable was so badly beaten by drunken partygoers that a witness thought he was dead. In one of three attacks in Waikato, an officer was knocked down after being hit from behind while in another, a policewoman required surgery after her ankle was severely broken.

The attacks have brought renewed calls from the Police Association for officers to be routinely armed. The clamour is understandable given the number of serious assaults has more than doubled in the past decade.

However, routinely arming police is not the solution. Officers already have access to firearms when it is deemed necessary and it is neither in their interest, nor the interest of public safety, for them to be carried all the time.

It is questionable whether the presence of firearms would have acted as a deterrent in the Dargaville incident.

Whangarei area commander Inspector Tracy Phillips said the mob responsible for the attack was described as acting like "wild animals". Such a volatile crowd would be unable to see reason, and had the police drawn firearms there would have been an unacceptable risk of innocent bystanders being shot. As it was, Ms Phillips said a young child was caught in the melee as one officer used his pepper spray.

The outcome for the two constables involved could also have been far more serious had they been armed.

The officer who was knocked unconscious had a Taser, which was grabbed by a woman as he was attacked. She tried to fire it at him, but was unable to set it off.

As Ms Phillips rightly noted, had the officer been wearing a pistol, the outcome could have been very different. Firearms are easier to use than Tasers.

New Zealand prides itself on being one of the few countries in the world that has a mostly unarmed police force.

However, there is an increasingly violent element of society that has no respect for the police.

Police deserve to be protected on the job, but routinely arming them is not the way forward. There are better measures which carry far less risk.

The police programme to issue personal alarms to all officers is one. Ensuring police have sufficient numbers to deal with incidents of drunken unruliness, where most attacks occur, is another.

The most important step is to ensure that those who attack the police are dealt with swiftly and harshly by the criminal justice system.

The Government has started on that path by amending the Sentencing Act. Under the change, judges are now required to treat the status of a police officer who is assaulted on duty as an aggravating factor when sentencing those convicted of such crimes.

It should send a clear message that society expects the courts to show no mercy to those who assault police.

The Dominion Post