OPINION: The year is coming to a bad conclusion with no fewer than five serious attacks on police officers. In the most serious incident, in Northland, an officer was beaten unconscious and kicked and pummelled as he lay on the ground. One of his assailants attempted to use his Taser stun gun on him but could not get it to work. A witness later told the police that she feared the officer would be killed. In another incident, in Huntly, an officer was king-hit by a man from a drunken mob as the officer attempted to make an arrest after a boy-racer complaint. In a third incident, a young woman officer attending a family violence complaint had her ankle broken so badly it required surgery.
After such a spate of incidents it is understandable that the frontline officers' union should call for all officers to carry guns. It is understandable but it is also faulty.
It goes without saying that assaults on police officers are deplorable and everything possible should be done that might deter them. But to allow officers routinely to carry weapons would be to cross the Rubicon in law enforcement in New Zealand. It would subtly but fundamentally alter the relationship between the police and the public with insufficient gain in safety to both to justify it.
The last time there was a serious call for officers to carry sidearms was about two years ago. It came after two years in which nine officers had been shot, including two who were killed. Among those wounded were two officers in Christchurch who were lucky not to be killed when a man opened fire on them during a run-of-the-mill drug inquiry.
After those incidents, Police Association members at their annual conference voted for the general arming of officers. They claimed then that public approval for such a move had grown to almost 60 per cent.
That is unlikely. Neither the minister of police at the time, Judith Collins, nor the police commissioner at the time, Howard Broad, as sensitive to public opinion as anyone, showed any enthusiasm for the idea. The present commissioner, Peter Marshall, is also not persuaded that it is necessary. In an interview when he took over the post last year, Marshall said: "Nothing . . . convinces me general arming is going to result in a safer public or indeed safer police officers."
One reason for this reluctance is the common-sense awareness that greater availability of guns would almost inevitably mean a greater use of them. That in turn would mean more controversy over police actions, more public inquiries and an inescapable risk of erosion of trust and respect between the police and public. The record of police shootings in Australia, where the police are routinely armed, and the attitude of the public towards the police there should be warning enough.
The police in New Zealand are far from entirely unarmed already. More patrol cars carry weapons in lockboxes and policy changes have allowed officers more discretion in deciding when to use them. In addition, the non-lethal Taser stun gun is now widely available to frontline officers. Despite the misgivings of some critics over their possible overuse, and concerns about their effectiveness, Tasers have probably been one of the most useful additions to the police arsenal in recent times. One crucial advantage of them is that the wrongdoer on the receiving end is still alive afterwards. Most New Zealanders, when they think about it, prefer it that way.
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