Op ed: Time for NZ police to end its armed response pilot

April 17, 2020

This op ed was first published on Radio New Zealand

As we enter the second week of lockdown, the situation that New Zealand police find themselves in right now is uniquely challenging.

Everyone is frustrated, and many of us are scared. But the unease and confusion that many are feeling about whether the police will arrest them for a daily stroll too far from home isn't just about Covid-19 anxiety.

It's about who feels they can trust the police, and whether their policy and practice actually achieves community safety.

And as with everything in Aotearoa, the answer to this question will be very different depending on what you look like and where you live.

It can't be news to anyone that Māori experience profound bias and discrimination in our justice system, and that this starts with how likely they are to have police action against them, whether it be arrests, or the use of guns or tasers.

So there's an existential question for the police in this situation: to build the trust and communal effort we need to get through and beyond Covid-19, what kind of organisation do they need to be? How far is that from their current reality?

And, somewhat poetically, would taking a public health approach to policing more generally - treating crime like a virus, if you will - help them to build better trust and better outcomes for our communities?

This is the reasoning behind an open letter that JustSpeak, along with a number of other organisations and community representatives, has released today, calling for an end to the armed response trials. More cops with guns is the wrong direction.

But proposing a public health approach to policing is not just opportunism on my part.

As both a rhetorical strategy and a policy approach, focusing on cures rather than on punishment has had profound results for police across the world.

It helped Glasgow reduce its murder rate by 60 percent, after many failed efforts to stem knife crime in Scotland.

In neighbourhoods in Chicago, influential community members were employed to prevent escalation of conflicts resulting in gun violence, and murder rates dropped by at least 40 percent.

What does public health policing even mean? It's basically common sense, freed from punitive and outdated attitudes about crime.

Focus on the community, not just people who are 'at risk', to make sure we understand the systemic problems.

Pivot to primary prevention rather than trying to resolve harms once they have happened. Use a 'whole system' approach and involve everyone who has influence.

Recognise that the harm of violence can spread like a disease, if the causes are left untreated. You can't threaten a virus out of existence.

A great example of a public health approach to policing is currently being trialled in Wellington.

In callouts for mental health emergencies, a mental health clinician and a paramedic will join police officers to provide care in home.

It's a much needed change given the recent incidents of suicide call outs resulting in someone being shot by police.

It's also an important step towards working collaboratively with other organisations to save lives and preventing people experiencing mental distress from ending up in a justice system that can do a lot of further harm.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, is the armed response team pilot currently running in Manukau, the Waikato and Canterbury.

With zero community consultation and specious reasoning, we have seen heavily armed police carrying pistols, rifles and tasers patrolling neighbourhoods and carrying out routine traffic stops.

It is as far away as you can get from evidence based policing, given that the carrying of weapons is likely to increase police aggression, decrease community safety and undermine trust in police.

Most crucially more people, particularly Māori and Pasifika, are likely to be hurt or killed.

It's clear that there are some genuine contradictions at the heart of policing in this country.

Until police leadership decide that public safety is the path they want to go down, we can't fault members of our community who do not trust them and will not engage.

The consequences of that will be dire - not just for how we get through Covid-19 and the lockdown, but also beyond.

If, however, the public perceive police as partners for collaboratively generating public health and safety, then strong relationships - with other agencies, and within most affected communities - will have far more impact than any use of force.

Genuine and equitable public safety is co-created by police and community together. It cannot be coerced.

And just as our public health system is only as strong as the most vulnerable member of our community, our justice system will also succeed or fail on the basis of how it treats the most marginalised.

We know that in times of crisis, government actions set the norms and policy that become our legacy.

Far from being a time to do what we've always done, our leaders should think about what the crisis we're currently experiencing tells us that matters - our ability to work together for the health of our communities, and in particular our most vulnerable.