Kiwiana Under Fire: Should NZ Police Carry Guns?
By Talia Parker
Most police officers want to be armed – and most New Zealanders agree. But would having more weapons make Aotearoa safer?
As my friend and I ate lunch outside the Science building, a cop wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a gun watched over us.
In the wake of the Christchurch massacre, whilst our National Threat Level remained high, police officers were ordered to carry Glock 17 pistols in their holsters.  The move was designed to give the public “more assurance, knowing that police could respond to situations immediately, and reduce the possibility of copycat attacks.” If carrying guns lets police respond more effectively and deters law-breaking, why not arm officers year-round? Given that New Zealand police only fired guns ten times in total in 2017, our current official stance on this issue is clear. But, the current global political climate and our recent national tragedy turned everyone’s minds to terrorism and public safety. It is worth taking the time to explore all possible options for protecting New Zealand citizens by considering the pros and cons of an armed police force.
The argument for arming the police is mostly based on current practices and deterrence. Police currently carry a metal baton, pepper spray and a taser. One could argue that a gun is not much of a step further. However, this is does not represent the reality of the weapon’s effect. Auckland man Jerrim Toms was shot four times by police, and the police did not attempt to use non-lethal force. This case clearly illustrates that one cannot draw comparisons between the impact of a gun and the impact of a taser. It also illustrates that police will use guns when they are given them over non-lethal options. Of course, police do the best they can in the life-threatening situations they face, and the vast majority act with incredible poise and responsibility. It is simply true that the introduction of guns raises the stakes of any situation, so saying that it is not much of a step from a taser to a gun is not justifiable.
In terms of deterrence, it is argued that simply knowing the police are armed reduces criminal behaviour. For example, the majority of instances where tasers were used by the police were “show only”, meaning that the police only had to produce the taser in order to deescalate the situation. Tasers were “discharged at 186 events and presented at a further 1,003.” It could therefore be said that even if police were given guns, it is not necessarily the case that they would be fired or used beyond deterrence. This supported by United States policy, where the police force is supplied with guns. Only about a quarter of US officers report ever firing their gun in the course of their duty. However, there is little evidence to suggest that United States officers being armed has reduced their crime rate. In fact, the United States has the 49th highest crime rate in the world, while New Zealand has the 69th without armed officers. Additionally, the use of heavily armed police units in the US has not reduced crime nor increased public safety. While the US and New Zealand are very different countries with different political climates, this does illustrate that there is little evidence showing that arming the police produces net benefits to society.
In contrast, the arguments against arming the police are more focused on necessity and escalation. Necessity arguments assert that police do not need guns to do their job effectively. Strategies such as “hot-spot” policing (where well-known crime areas are identified and monitored) and intervention in youth gangs have been shown to reduce crime and disorderly behaviour without the addition of firearms. However, it seems to this writer that these strategies could lead to profiling, as they both rely on previous offenders reoffending to be effective, giving way to stereotypes. This is particularly worrying given that Maori are eight times more likely to be subject to police violence than Pakeha. While this would seem to support guns as a viable alternative policing option, this is not the case based on the previous evidence presented, which proves fairly conclusively that guns will not provide a valid alternative. Intervention once a bad decision involving a firearm has been made under pressure is much more difficult to rectify. Other options need to be made available.
Additionally, firearms have been found to escalate violence rather than reduce its risk. The “killing and wounding by and of police” has been linked to higher rates of police armament. While it is expected that more people will be killed and wounded by the police when they are armed with deadly weapons (indeed, for many, that’s the idea), it is concerning that gun-carrying police were more likely to be injured themselves. This seems to rebut the argument that guns make police safer by affording them more protection. It might even be true that police officers don’t need further protection. The number of assaults on police has been declining since 2009. The last time a New Zealand police officer was killed in this course of their duty was ten years ago. British MP David Lammy stated that arming the police “risks turning our streets into armed battlegrounds.” The argument that arming the police incites criminals to arm themselves more heavily in response makes logical sense, though has not been empirically proven. More research is needed in this area before we make policy decisions surrounding dangerous and volatile weapons.
If guns don’t protect police, do they protect citizens? It does not appear so. The elephant in the room with all discussions about this issue is, of course, police shootings. Armed police aren’t just equipped to take down a bad guy, they’re equipped to take down anyone they perceive as a threat. While police are incredibly brave, they are also people. By virtue of that, they make mistakes. In the US, Jemel Roberson, an innocent man, took down a shooter by pointing his own gun at him. Police who responded to the incident mistook Roberson for the shooter, and shot and killed him. If that policeman had not had a gun, Roberson would still be alive, and the shooter would still have been apprehended.
So, what does all this mean for Aotearoa? Well, there is evidence that police have been less than perfect at determining what level of force is justified with the weapons they do have. For example, the Independent Police Conduct Authority found that police acted excessively by tasing a man three times (though the first one was found to be justified). This is not to say that our police are not protecting and serving our country, and putting their lives on the line. It is to say that they are making very quick decisions under immense pressure most of us cannot imagine, and evidence proves that introducing deadly weapons into those situations will not help anyone involved.
What the police do need is more funding, more officers, and training to allow them to be able to deal with mental health and child abuse. Having police officers visible on the streets has been proven to reduce crime, guns or no guns, but this requires more funding to recruit more officers. Jerrim Toms (the aforementioned man who was shot by New Zealand police) was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Instead of a gun to kill him with, police should be given the training necessary to recognise and deescalate that situation so he could receive the help he needed. This type of training would also reduce danger to the officers themselves, who will not immediately have to introduce life-or-death consequences to the situation. Of course, training such as that takes funding. But, so do guns. UK statistics estimate that arming the police would cost five hundred pounds (NZ $954.51) per officer, plus training costs. Making the police better and safer is not free. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the price.
On a purely personal level, the idea of armed police officers just seems profoundly un-Kiwi. Seeing that officer outside the library felt like our nation had collectively lost that optimistic spirit that makes us special. The New Zealand police protect and serve us, and we should not be inflicting further danger on them by introducing deadly firearms to their already dangerous jobs. I for one breathe easier knowing there are fewer guns on the street, no matter who is pointing them.
Image sourced from Pexels.com
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 Leith Huffadine “More officers support arming police” (2 March 2019) Radio New Zealand <https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/383762/more-officers-support-arming-police>.
 Joel MacManus “Police officers in every part of New Zealand will continue to carry guns” (25 March 2019) Stuff <https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111528797/police-officers-in-every-part-of-new-zealand-will-continue-to-carry-guns>.
 Above n 2.
 Unnamed Author “Use-of-force report: NZ police fired guns 10 times in 2017” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, Auckland, 17 September 2018.)
 Anonymous “New Zealand police already halfway armed, time to become fully armed” (4 March 2019) Stuff <https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/110999947/new-zealand-police-already-halfway-armed-time-to-become-fully-armed>.
 Laura Tupou “Police shot father-to-be four times, firing 'upwards of 12' bullets” (13 April 2018) Radio New Zealand <https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/354920/police-shot-father-to-be-four-times-firing-upwards-of-12-bullets>.
 Above n 4.
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Police Firearms Policy and Levels of Violence” (1970) JRCD 188 at 188.
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 Unnamed Author “Armed police: pros and cons” (30 November 2018) The Week <https://www.theweek.co.uk/98194/armed-police-pros-and-cons>.
 Unnamed Author “Routinely arming police” Otago Daily Times (online ed, Otago, 6 March 2018).
 Editorial Board “Police killed two good guys with guns. Arming more people isn’t the answer.” The Washington Post (online ed, Washington DC, 30 November 2018).
 Superintendent Karyn Malthus “Police acknowledge IPCA findings into use of taser during arrest in Auckland” (22 November 2018) New Zealand Police <https://www.police.govt.nz/news/release/police-acknowledge-ipca-findings-use-taser-during-arrest-auckland>.
 Stuart Nash “Police underfunded despite rise in crime” (7 June 2017) Labour <https://www.labour.org.nz/police_underfunded_despite_rise_in_crime>.
 Sally Murphy “Jerrim Toms' shooting shows mental health underfunded” (13 April 2018) Radio New Zealand <https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/355001/jerrim-toms-shooting-shows-mental-health-underfunded>.