Tuesday 29 August 2017

We don't know how lucky we are: unarmed constabulary edition

The third installment of The Outside of the Asylum over at The Spinoff lauds New Zealand's unarmed constabulary as compared to the kinds of excesses that Radley Balko has been documenting in America. 

A snippet:
Balko contrasts SWAT strategies – no-knock drug raids in the middle of the night – with Winston Churchill’s (possibly apocryphal) quip, “Democracy means that when there’s a knock on the door at 3 a.m., it’s probably the milkman.” Culosi’s case attracted a reasonable amount of media attention, partly because people don’t expect peaceful, unarmed, middle-aged optometrists to be shot and killed by police for answering the door.

But police in America shoot and kill people all the time: 991 in 2015 and 963 in 2016; 2017 is on track to match those figures. Police officers are rarely charged; those charged are rarely convicted. While crime dramas feature situations where the best course of action for police really is using deadly force, they rarely feature cases like Culosi’s. Or Brian Claunch: a double-amputee, in a wheelchair, in a group home for the mentally ill, shot in the head by police because they found his pen threatening.

If the instructions on the side of a packet of toothpicks (see chapter one) are a sign of a civilisation gone mad, what should we think about American policing?

New Zealand has so far remained outside of the American policing asylum. From 1941 to 2015, police in New Zealand shot and killed 29 people. Adjusting for population size, police here take about 37 years to kill as many people as American police kill every year.

This is largely due to New Zealand’s unarmed constabulary. When police do not have immediate access to firearms in situations they view as threatening, they must use other methods while seeking armed assistance – if it is necessary.
I still love Police Commissioner Mike Bush's statement, after an officer was shot and there were calls again to arm the police:
The death of Senior Constable Len Snee was deeply felt by police officers of all ranks, all over the country. Our data on risk has been improved under my watch and it shows police frequently deal with people with weapons.

In Len’s case, the weapon was a gun. This has, quite rightly, led to public discussion about whether all field officers should be routinely armed. The majority of commentators say ‘no.’ That is in line with the public feedback Police received when we consulted on the Policing Act 2008; it’s also in line with the sentiments of police officers themselves.

Being unarmed is a unique and cherished feature of the policing style adopted by New Zealand Police – a style for which we are held in high regard internationally. Routine arming of the police would not erase this style of policing, but it would make the job of being a community police officer considerably more difficult…

So our strategies rely on officers’ good judgment. They are trained to identify risk and if they encounter an armed situation, to withdraw, cordon and contain until appropriately armed officers can be deployed. If the situation is equivocal, they have arms at ready resort with which to equip themselves.

This tactic has worked very well for over 40 years.

International evidence gives me no cause to think it is outdated. Literature on police experience and practice points to a high risk that officers can have their own weapons turned against them, having been overpowered in otherwise innocent situations.

There is also concern about the number of officers shot because they didn’t want to fire their weapons. People tend to join the New Zealand Police because they want to help people, not shoot them. 
But there are worrying signs on the horizon. The asset forfeiture rules that, in America, have driven perverse outcomes have gotten worse here - and could yet push in the same direction.

And there's the ongoing mess of police interfering in local bar and bottleshop licence renewals, and the joint mess of policy being happy to ask banks to 'voluntarily' produce records without a warrant and the banks just handing it over (and not the first time, though it's unclear when this newly revealed instance happened - it could have been around the time of the first one). Would happily flip my accounts over to whichever bank took a stronger line on only handing stuff over to the police if they were legally compelled to do so.

For those so inclined, The Spinoff's comments sections are over on Facebook [First installment; second installment; third installment]. Folks there seem to have liked the first two installments more than the third. Oh well.

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