The New Zealand Herald

Armed police safer, but are we?


Loud calls to arm police that followed recent attacks on officers are understand­able. Police Associatio­n president Chris Cahill is leading the cause because of a growing number of criminals carrying guns. However, Police Minister Poto Williams has said she will not be backing down on her strong position not to support the general arming of police.

The National Party has been calling for Armed Response Teams, which were controvers­ially trialled in 2019, to be reinstated, but is also not in support of arming all police. Almost everyone in the debate is right, police officers are in peril. A shot officer is much less likely to protect the public.

Williams’ comments come during the trial of the man who admits murdering Constable Matthew Hunt during a routine traffic stop, but has denied the attempted murder of a second officer.

A 2020 article by Clare Farmer and Richard Evans from Deakin University in Geelong, Australia scrunitise­d the experience­s of armed police in Toronto, Manchester, Brisbane and Auckland (where frontline police have firearms in patrol cars).

They sought an evidence-based answer to the question, “does arming police increase safety?” Not only was there no evidence of a reduction in serious crime, the researcher­s noted, but a likely outcome is the community is less safe.

“These preliminar­y findings suggest that routinely arming police does not correlate with lower levels of serious crime, but it does appear to correlate with an increased likelihood of being fatally shot by police,” Farmer and Evans write. “A direct causal link is not claimed. However, the findings cast doubt upon the underlying but rarely challenged rationale for routinely arming police that it makes the community safer.”

Williams notes the Ma¯ori and Pacific Island communitie­s she represents do not want police officers toting firearms.

She, and they, will be well aware they are proportion­ately more likely to be in the sights for any increased police shootings.

Hardline law and order advocates in the Sensible Sentencing Trust accuse Williams of “total rigor mortis” in dealing with gangs and firearms.

“Police are being attacked, assaulted, and shot at in record numbers and the minister needs to be making decisions based on their safety and ability to protect themselves and the community — not some politicall­y charged implicatio­n that police are racist,” said trust co-leader Darroch Ball.

Almost everyone in this debate is right but the trust is the exception. The ability of the police to protect the community is not likely to be improved by taking up more arms, as decreased public safety would be one likely result.

The deplorable, tragic death of Constable Hunt, and the wounding of his colleague, may well have played out differentl­y had they been carrying firearms, but there is no avoiding the likelihood that the more we arm the police, the less safe we are likely to be.

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