Police to trial new armed unit after terror attack, ongoing meth and organised crime risk
New rapid reaction armed police teams will form in three districts after the Christchurch terror attacks prompted a review of firearms emergencies.
On Friday, Police Commissioner Mike Bush cited "growth in organised crime" and the impact of methamphetamine-fuelled offending as factors justifying the new teams.
The country's police union said the armed response teams (ARTs) showed top brass were finally "jolted" into action after frontline officers warned for years of increasingly aggressive armed criminals.
The six-month pilot, starting on October 28, was a response to what Bush called a changed "operating environment" since the mosque shootings.
ARTs would start in Auckland's Counties Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury, using Holden Acadia SUVs.
Unlike existing armed offenders squads (AOSs), staff in the new units would be deployed full-time.
Addressing media at Counties Manukau Police Station, Bush said since the terror attack, police had responded to 1350 reported firearm offences and been shot at eight times.
It was not yet certain if that indicated a real increase in firearms incidents.
Bush said past data gathering was "not at the same evidential standard" as now, but police "believed" these incidents had increased.
He said he could not assure the public that officers shot at in the new SUVs would be safe, but police in the teams would be routinely armed, equipped and mobile.
To prevent SUVs being stolen, police drivers would have to keep car keys with them.
Units including dog squads would occasionally support ARTs.
Bush said project success would be measured by how many times the unit deployed, how successful deployments were, and by gauging public feedback.
The Evidence-Based Policing Centre will evaluate the project in April.
Increased police concerns about armed criminals came despite gun buyback and amnesty programmes initiated after the terror attacks.
Bush said nearly 30,000 firearms had been surrendered. The amnesty ends on December 20.
"Regardless of how many firearms are handed in at that point, that will be a success.
"Following that, anyone who doesn't want to take advantage of that window, we'll come looking for you."
Asked what political lobbying preceded the new teams, or what discussions were had with Police Minister Stuart Nash, Bush said it was an operational decision and "really important" for police to maintain independence.
In a statement, Nash said the pilot would be closely monitored and the new project did not mean police were moving to routine arming.
"The three areas have been selected for the trial because of the incidence of crimes involving armed offenders," Nash said. "They also have the largest AOS groups."
Canterbury police district commander Superintendent John Price said officers around the country had firearms presented to them daily.
"We can't be naive there are people with firearms out there who want to use them illegally for illegal purposes. It happens a lot more regularly than previously.
"Anything that's going to enhance the safety of our staff is great, anything that's going to enhance the safety of our public is superb and I believe this will do."
Canterbury's precision targeting team seized 199 firearms from criminals last year alone.
"If you go back prior to the 15th of March we had actively been looking at removing firearms out of the hands of criminals on the streets."
Police Association president Chris Cahill said he welcomed the new ARTs, after the union for years warned armed offenders were presenting more risks.
"Police have finally picked up on that."
Cahill believed specialist cops in the special tactics group and the AOS were upbeat about the new teams.
"These guys are highly motivated, but they've been busy."
Cahill earlier this week said public support for general arming was at 61 per cent – the highest level for at least a decade.
The Homicide Report by Stuff revealed that the vast majority of those who kill with guns were unlicensed and their weapon of choice was often a .22 calibre rifle or shotgun.