Public support for general arming has risen to the highest levels since the Police Association started surveying the public over a decade ago.
Police Association members have kept up a steady drumbeat for general arming of police for the past decade.
Every year since 2008, the association has surveyed both members and the public on this issue. The surveying initially followed some high-profile police shooting deaths.
In 2008, Sergeant Don Wilkinson was shot, and a year later Senior Constable Leonard Snee was shot dead by Jan Molenaar in the Napier siege.
Twenty-nine police officers have been killed in the line of duty since 1890, 21 by gunshot. But New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the world, with 2016 figures putting deaths at 1.87 per million.
The steady police support for arming is not surprising, given frontline officers are the ones dealing with firearms incidents.
But the public and politicians have taken a different stance to general arming – until now.
This year’s survey puts public support for general arming at its highest levels since surveying began.
Nielsen surveyed 700 members of the public on behalf of the association in June, and found 61 percent in favour of general arming.
This is up on results from previous years. Last year, 55 percent of the public supported general arming.
Meanwhile, police support for general arming remained at 66 percent, with the percentage higher among road policing units.
“Day-to-day we have a prevention-first operating model, I think having a gun on the hip, as a matter of course, perhaps sends the wrong message …”
Police Association president Chris Cahill has spoken publicly about his support for general arming of police in the wake of the Christchurch attack, where 51 Muslims were killed by a man armed with a military-style semi-automatic firearm.
In his opening speech to the Police Association conference in Wellington, Cahill said the year was defined by the March 15 attack, and commended officers on their response.
“In a single day, no other job goes from holding someone at gunpoint to comforting another in the depth of despair,” he said.
“As a country we did not lose our innocence – our innocence was taken, and while we will never forget the act, our strength is in our unified determination to foil any repeat.
“As a country, that is the very least we can do for the survivors of Christchurch,” he said.
Police Minister Stuart Nash said police had ready access to firearms, if and when they needed them – as was demonstrated on March 15.
He said he was not in favour of general arming of police.
District commanders could require general arming “at the drop of the hat” if needed, he reiterated.
“Day-to-day we have a prevention-first operating model, I think having a gun on the hip, as a matter of course, perhaps sends the wrong message.”
Nash said he believed the increased public support was a reaction to the events of March 15, and the subsequent police response.
“What we saw post-March the 15th, is police officers up and down this country – outside Parliament, certainly outside our train stations, airports, some schools, mosques – all with firearms.
“And I think what they also saw is police act in a way that was incredibly professional, very compassionate, very caring.
“So, in a way, it began to normalise – in a very small way – people seeing police with arms.”
The survey results come as police continue with the gun buyback and amnesty, following the ban on military style semi-automatics, which was introduced following the terror attack.
So far, almost 30,000 firearms have been collected along with over 100,000 prohibited parts. Police have paid out about $56 million.
Meanwhile, police and the Government continue to grapple with the changing dynamics and rising numbers of organised criminals in New Zealand – many of whom are armed, and some of whom have publicly stated they do not plan to hand in their weapons.
Nash’s message to these people was clear: the amnesty and buyback would not be extended beyond December 20; he would not be changing the pricing; and he would not be changing his mind.
Those who did not hand over prohibited weapons would face up to five years in jail.
This warning, issued at the Police Association annual conference in Wellington on Tuesday, comes as the police minister prepares to take a discussion document on Firearms Prohibition Orders to Cabinet.
The document needs to be agreed to by Cabinet before it can go out to public consultation at the end of the year.
Nash has always been in favour of FPOs, but a bill repeatedly proposed by the National Party has had a rocky road, and has fallen at multiple hurdles.
He will have to work hard to strike a balance between the human rights implications regarding search and seizure, and how to appropriately target those who illegally hold weapons.
Meanwhile, Nash said he was looking to change the so-called ‘king pin clause’, to make it easier for police to go after gang leaders, while also amending the law that deals with the proceeds of crime.
Many of the issues raised by Nash and Cahill during the opening day of the annual conference linked back to the theme of organised crime.
The changing face of organised crime was a matter of concern to police members, particularly the high-level of sophistication, the increase in gang numbers, the setting up of overseas gangs and cells of Asian organised crime syndicates, and the increasing amount of meth flooding into New Zealand.
While the Government and police acknowledged the current dynamics presented a challenge, Nash said he was making sure extra resource was going to where it was needed, as part of the Government’s aspirational recruitment programme.
However, 60 percent of police union members surveyed said they were dissatisfied with resourcing levels in the fight against organised crime and drugs.
The resourcing issue was exemplified by the Tasman situation: the South island district was seeing a rise in gang and organised crime activity, but was also the only district to see a drop in the number of police officers since the Government took power.
The conference continues on Wednesday, with the focus on recent developments in gangs and the police strategy to combat organised crime.