A member of the Armed Offenders Squad. Photo: Getty

Militarisation by stealth: Armed Response Teams overstepping their bounds already

OPINION: A routine arrest conducted by the police's Armed Response Team less than a month into its trial shows critics are right to be alarmed by roaming armed police patrols, writes Emilie Rākete, of activist group People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA).

It’s taken less than a month for the police’s elite, supposedly exceptional-circumstances-only roaming Armed Response Teams be used during totally ordinary policing.

Armed police patrols in Hamilton were earlier this week used to arrest people accused of breaching their bail conditions, according to reports from RNZ. As a criminology graduate student and member of PAPA, even I was surprised to see this happen so quickly.

Three weeks ago, Police Commissioner Mike Bush went on TV with his hat clutched in his hands like a Victorian-era orphan. The cops were in so much danger from gun-toting criminals, Bush claimed, that it was necessary to send SUVs manned by Armed Offenders Squad (AOS) members carrying Glock pistols and Bushmaster rifles to roam the streets full-time. In actual fact, police statistics show that cops in New Zealand report fewer injuries than bartenders and firearm crime hasn’t increased in years. Despite the complete absence of any evidence they’re needed, full-time armed police patrols are now being “trialled” for the next six months in Counties Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury. These teams of AOS officers are now roaming at random in so-called “high risk” areas, armed with automatic weapons.

Far from being the last resort for dealing with March 15th-style atrocities as they unfold, armed police patrols are apparently just going to be idling outside of the dairy and checking license plates for outstanding warrants. The use of heavily-armed police commandos for inane day-to-day policing is well beyond the already flimsy justification Bush and his fellow unelected police bureaucrats have given for their introduction. If these armed patrols are going to carry out ordinary policing, then, by definition, ordinary police in this country are armed with machine guns. This fundamentally changes the character of policing in New Zealand, and it has changed without us, the public, having any democratic input.

Bush argues that armed patrols are a necessary response to the dangerous “operating environment” the police allegedly have to work in now, but overseas evidence shows armed response teams like these rapidly end up being used for routine police work. The outcome of introducing heavily-armed cops in these jurisdictions was, naturally, an increase in violence and an escalation in the arms race between cops and gangs.

These armed patrols fly in the face of the evidence. Efforts by police bureaucrats in New Zealand to justify the armed patrols state a high-sounding number of firearm crimes, without noting that this figure has been unchanged for years. This is well below the standard of evidence we should expect for a policy change of this magnitude. The police have unilaterally decided this is in our best interest, and both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Police have rolled over and acquiesced. These armed patrols put brown lives in danger, and undermine the democratic process. Police in this country beat, shoot, gas, taser, and set attack dogs on Māori at far higher rates than they do Pākehā. When we consider that the historical crime data used to determine where these patrols will go is tainted by decades of institutional racism, the picture that emerges is ugly. More police guns in Māori communities will mean more police bullets in Māori bodies.

This decision is too important for an organisation which admits that it structurally discriminates against Māori to make on its own. That’s why it’s so important for New Zealanders to push for accountability from the police – even when petitions like this one are our only avenue.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) is a prison abolitionist organisation working for a fairer, safer, and more just Aotearoa.

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