New Zealand / Crime

Police Armed Response Team arrest in suburban area raises concerns

10:23 am on 11 November 2019

Residents and politicians fear new armed police teams are being used for lower-risk responses and "preventative patrolling" after an arrest in suburban Hamilton over the weekend.

Video footage shows police from the newly formed Armed Response Teams pulling over a car linked to a dishonesty crime on a suburban Hamilton road.

The footage showed two officers, at least one with a Glock pistol, talking to a man sitting in a car on the side of the road. No other police cars or officers can be seen.

Police later said the stop was entirely appropriate, and resulted in the man being arrested without incident for "breaching conditions".

They said he was known to have carried firearms, but he was not charged with any gun offences in this case. They also said that the Armed Response Teams could more broadly undertake "preventative patrolling" in "high risk" locations.

Bianca Brown, who filmed the video, said it was terrifying that armed officers were being used to deal with low-level offences so shortly after police stressed the teams would be to "complement" frontline officers in "critical or high risk" situations.

"It also makes me think they're out there just driving around the community checking [number] plates like normal cop cars do. [That's] not assistance, that's literally doing what a cop car normally does - looking for people to pull over," Ms Brown said.

"I had no idea that's what they'd be doing. That's terrifying."

Ms Brown said if these armed police are proactively patrolling and looking for work, that's a broader scope of work than the impression police gave.

"So just driving around suburbia with guns. And of course the dude that they pulled over was a brown dude, it was quite like 'okay, here we go'.

"You see the videos from America, and you can't help but draw parallels when you see stuff like that."

A week ago, opponents of the armed patrols in South Auckland feared a mission creep would set in, expanding how armed police could be used.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said the response to this incident was appropriate, and this is what he expects the units to do.

"Well they're certainly fully armed and have all the equipment to respond to those top-end things, but I don't think anyone would expect that they should just sit around and do nothing all day. There's plenty of other lower risk, but still risk events, that it's appropriate for them to be involved in," Mr Cahill said.

He said officers do not always know if someone has a gun until they see it, and to stay safe they have to be prepared.

"It's great that the vast majority of New Zealanders don't witness that. But the fact that it's occurring means that there's a need for these patrols to be deployed. We'll see when the trial's been done whether they warrant full-time deployment."

Photo: Supplied / Bianca Brown

Chester Borrows, a former National MP and former police officer, chaired the government's Justice Advisory Group, which investigated how to make the justice system safer and more effective.

He also backed the police response to this case, given the person was wanted for dishonesty offences, was previously known to carry firearms, and was stopped next to a dairy which had been recently targeted.

But he's wary of the Armed Response Teams' broad remit.

"I'm a bit worried about it actually. The fact that it's out on the street actively patrolling in an intimidating way," Mr Borrows said.

He said the police should not use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and using armed police could inflame some situations.

He's certain these armed patrols will turn fatal.

"Oh I'm absolutely convinced of [that], it will, and it probably won't take too long. What bothers me is that this approach is going to be preferred over something that's more considered and less violent."

The six-month trial is in three districts - Counties Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury - with a population of 1.5 million people, almost a third of the country.

Mr Borrows said just three weeks in, he thought the outcome of the trial was as good as decided, and it would more than likely be rolled out nationally.

"I can't see them winding it back. I don't think they would have done it to start with if they didn't think they were going to carry on with it, quite honestly."

A spokesperson for the Minister of Police Stuart Nash said he cannot comment on police operational matters, and the decision to launch the armed teams was made solely by police.

Deputy Commissioner of Police John Tims said the response to this incident was entirely appropriate.

"This incident was not a routine 'regular' roadside stop but a targeted stop of a vehicle linked to dishonesty offending. The driver was wanted to arrest and was known to carry firearms. He was arrested without incident and appeared in Hamilton District Court charged with breaching conditions," Mr Tims said in a statement.

"Armed Response Teams will be focused on responding to events where a significant risk is posed to the public or staff. They will also support terminations of pre-planned and high-risk search warrants; high-profile public events with an associated risk profile; and prevention activity such as this incident.

"Our Armed Response Teams are staffed by Police officers who come to work each day to keep our communities safe. They have enhanced tactical and medical training and their specialist response will allow high risk incidents to be deescalated and diffused with the least amount of force required."

Today, he told Morning Report the officers were in the area conducting "prevention activities" in what's considered to be a high-risk location.

"We want absolute feedback from our communities about how well the pilot is going, and we will listen to that feedback" - Deputy Commissioner of Police, John Tims

"Based on evidence [and] based on intelligence, they were in that area because it was a high area of concern for us around robberies, so they were absolutely right to be in that area and they came across the vehicle and did what they did.

"The reality is our people deal with the events as they come across them, so if the ARTs happen to be just patrolling in a location and they come across a vehicle - they come across something they need to deal with - they will just deal with it."

He said there was nothing to be concerned about, and did not want people to fear police either.

"We want them to have that trust with us, we want to work with our communities, but I also think that our communities expect us to deal with events, to deal with those that are committing offences, so there is an expectation that we will do our job.

"We have police staff that have access to firearms 24/7, these officers are our Armed Offenders Squad members, we've just deployed them in a different way within the ARTs."

He encouraged those who had concerns to contact him or the police commander in the district where the trials were under way.

"I think the other point that's really missed is this is one vehicle in one district, we've got three districts, so there's only one vehicle in each district.

"This is not the whole New Zealand police, this is one vehicle that's there to keep our people safe, to keep our communities safe, to deal with those high-risk siutations and, yes, they will based on evidence and intelligence do prevention activities in those high-risk locations and it's about keeping everybody safe."