For the longest time, we’ve maintained the fiction of an unarmed police force in New Zealand, with rifles and pistols appearing on the streets only as part of an Armed Offenders Squad call-out. Now news-clips regularly feature Kiwi police toting Glock pistols and AK47-style assault rifles. That’s because almost every frontline patrol car carries them. In fact, the New South Wales police union is agitating to be armed to the same level as our cops are.
If, for years, the guns have been hidden in plain view, what about the use of them? According to a police tactical options report, firearm deployment (where firearms are carried to an incident) went from 293 in 2012 to 361 in 2014 (the most recent figure). New Zealand has had five police fatal shootings in the past 12 months alone – the most recent in Wellington on February 26, when a man stopped by police was shot dead after he got out of his car and approached officers while armed with a knife.
Taken on average, over the past 10 years, New Zealand police fatally shot citizens at twice the rate of Victoria (population, six million). Compared with world-class police forces such as the English and German, New Zealand police kill at closer to 10 times the rate. London bobbies are still not armed with Tasers or sidearms on patrol.
Since Tasers were rolled out in 2010, use of firearms has actually increased, which follows overseas trends. The Queensland police authority found police firearm use had doubled since the introduction of Tasers, from six per cent of all “use of force” incidents in 2007 to 12 per cent in 2009.
In New Zealand, Tasers were deployed 4196 times in the five-year period from 2010 to 2015, but fired only 623 times – roughly the same numbers as in New South Wales, which has almost twice the population. However, it is not just the number of discharges that is important. Close study of deployment shows that in almost half the cases, Tasers are being unholstered to enforce compliance. A similar mission-creep has been experienced in Australia where, according to the Queensland police authority, the threat of Taser use against those simply resisting arrest without assaultive behaviour doubled from 22 per cent of cases in 2007 to 43 per cent in 2009.
A request made to police failed to deliver pursuit fatality figures by press-time, but a review of media reports shows 71 mostly young people have died in police pursuits since 2000.
Victoria, West Australia and Tasmania have policies where pursuits are permitted only if the offender is high-risk or lives are threatened. When introducing his state’s new policy, Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said few pursuits had ever met those criteria. In general, states that have adopted the virtual ban report no change in driver offending and a dramatic drop in injury and death. Since Tasmania adopted the policy in 1999, there’s been just one fatal pursuit.
In February, the IPCA urged NZ police to review their policy on chasing fleeing drivers. Police Commissioner Mike Bush denied any need for a policy change: “It’s their choice as to whether or not they flee and it’s those people that put the public in danger.” If someone came up with a better policy, he added, they would adopt it.
Police dogs are now biting less often, with some 196 recorded injuries in 2014. In 2003, while covering a story for 60 Minutes, I found that 673 people had been bitten by police dogs in a single year, many seriously and with permanent injuries. I set that figure against the number of apprehensions where dogs were involved in an incident, and calculated a bite ratio of more than 30 per cent, three times international standards. Incredibly, the police had never made that calculation.
The figures necessary to make an accurate, updated calculation have still not been released to me, despite a request last December. However, close study reveals that the dog section still records alarming results. Police statistics show Wellington police dogs in 2014 bit and injured 43 people, compared to the South Auckland figure of just six bite victims, for a similar population. Another outlier was Canterbury, with 34 bite victims.
And still concerning is the unknown number of innocent homeowners and bystanders being bitten by police dogs; they then often face a battle for apologies and compensation. In 2010, one such victim, who required days of surgery after being mauled by a police dog, was forced to deal with the stress and expense of suing the police in the Manukau District Court.
Dismissing the $20,000 damages claim, Judge Peter Spiller ruled that police had to have regard to members of the public when deploying police dogs, but, “it has to be borne in mind that biting is an inherent risk of using police dogs in the detection of crime and that the tort of negligence is subject to the test of reasonableness”.
This was published in the April 2017 issue of North & South.