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'Revenge justice' won’t keep New Zealand’s first responders safe

"We keep imprisoning more people in response to dogma not data." – Sir Peter Gluckman.

After a violent attack against a paramedic in Warkworth recently, New Zealand First have renewed their call for harsher penalties against people who assault first responders.

Of course, we need to keep police, ambulance, fire and corrections officers safe – in 2018, there were more than 1200 attacks on paramedics alone. They do a tough and thankless job, and there’s no doubt we need to ensure their protection.

But NZ First MP Darroch Ball’s Protection for First Responders and Prison Officers Bill, which passed its first reading last year, will fail at achieving that goal. If it becomes law, there will be a new offence – injuring a first responder or prison officer with intent to injure – carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of six months’ imprisonment.

But the Bill does not even acknowledge the underlying issues that lead to these assaults in the first place: of those 1200 attacks on paramedics, 36 per cent involved alcohol, 13 per cent were mental-health related and 13 per cent related to drugs. Instead, the proposed legislation makes the all too common mistake of assuming harsher penalties deter people from committing violent crimes.

Our emergency crews are often called to deescalate or support distressed people in extremely chaotic environments. St John, for example, reports that over the last six months nearly 20,000 people who accessed their ambulance service were in some kind of crisis relating to their mental health.

In 2019, 8,765 of calls were related to either an overdose or poisoning; 8,229 came from people seeking psychiatric support or care for people who had attempted suicide; while 17,213 were related to some form of traumatic injury. One can only imagine the chaotic environments our first responders must walk into on any given day.

In the Bill’s general policy statement, it reads: offenders need to think twice before they attempt to assault or injure first responders, as their actions can affect the lives of others.

The Bill assumes if distressed or intoxicated individuals know that they will do serious jail time for harming a first responder, they won't act violently. But the reality is that many people who commit these crimes are not thinking about the consequences – they are reacting.

We can punish them, we can chuck them in prison, we can even throw away the key if we want to, but all we will succeed in doing is increasing our prison population. Instead of keeping first responders safe, we will only be punishing people who need help after they have hurt those who were sent to help them, while doing nothing at all to prevent violent assaults from happening in the first place.

To effect change, we must think about these issues in a different way. Punitive, revenge-based policies like this one, just do not work. If you need further proof of this – just look at our prisons and high recidivism rates. If locking people up was enough to keep our communities safe, we wouldn’t need to continue building more prisons.

Related articles: The case for closing prisons | An inmate's view from the inside of Paremoremo Prison | Sir Kim Workman on his fight for criminal justice reform

We should also be examining the effectiveness of the systems designed to keep first responders safe. Do they have adequate de-escalation and assessment training? Do they have the right support and safety plans to manage these risky situations they are being asked to walk into? Are they staffed adequately?

Instead of focusing on punishing people after the fact, we should be finding real solutions. The goal should be to mitigate the risk of an assault even happening. Are we confident that we are doing enough in this area?

And if not, then what are we doing providing an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, while there is still no guard rail at the top?

There’s also another issue worth considering. I've been a youth development worker for almost 10 years, supporting and journeying alongside rangatahi convicted of violent crimes. My concern is that this Bill will only lead to more young Māori in our prisons and as Corrections has established, people who start offending in their teen years are considerably more likely to become persistent offenders, particularly if their initial crimes are ones that result in a prison sentence.

Discrimination and racism exist within our country. Not always in the same sort of blatant, in your face, discrimination of our past, but a more subtle form of discrimination; where people are approached and treated differently based on their age, where they come from, what they look like, and who their whanau are.

I see this all too often – Māori rangatahi are approached by police officers in a manner which only escalates the tension, instead of defusing it. Sure, you could say rangatahi should respect the uniform but we’re not talking about young people who are healthy, safe, and stable. We are talking about young men who are distressed, sometimes mentally ill and reacting out of severe trauma.

I know so many rangatahi who in a moment of distress, have lashed out and severely hurt someone, and instantly been remorseful for what they have done. I have held these young men as they have wept, instantly filled with self-hatred and loathing for what they have done. Harsher penalties would not have prevented the violence that occurred at their hands.

But we are a country that has failed to provide for the needs of our most vulnerable. We prefer punishment to healing, condemnation to restoration. The Protection for First Responders and Prison Officers Bill provokes extremely important questions about ourselves: Do we want to be a people who punish those who need help to become healthy, productive citizens? Or do we want to be a nation that works towards healing and restoration?

Throughout my career, I have yet to see punitive measures work as a means of violence prevention. 

I know for some people that grinds against your sense of justice. We’ve become so conditioned to view the world as black and white. It’s easier that way, viewing people as good or bad, upstanding citizens or low life thugs. But people just aren’t that simple.

St John supports this Bill and NZ First is right to seek a way to keep our first responders safe – I applaud Darroch Ball for his intention. But just as the National Party has come under scrutiny recently for providing punitive, sound-bite solutions to complex problems, this Bill must equally be critiqued.

Many of the people who will be affected by law change, if it passes, will be people at risk of becoming recidivist offenders. We will be punishing people whose behaviour is deplorable but driven by a number of societal factors. And at the end of the day, our communities will be no safer than they were before.

Public submissions on the Protection for First Responders and Prison Officers Bill are open until 12 February 2020.

Aaron Hendry works in the youth development sector and blogs at When Lambs Are Silent.

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