Ideasroom

Cops with guns will make us less safe

Victoria University of Wellington's Simon Mackenzie, Trevor Bradley, Angus Lindsay explain why armed cops in cars is a bad idea 

The new trial of Armed Response Teams (ARTs) in Counties Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury involves sending at least three armed police officers out in patrol vehicles to be constantly available to respond to crimes involving firearms. Currently, police do have armed offender squad officers, but they are dispatched from base to respond to serious firearms incidents rather than being continually present in the community.

The police commissioner has given two justifications for this trial of roving armed cops in cars: community safety and the safety of police officers themselves. The second reason is the real driver, but it will inevitably come at the expense of the first. Cops in cars with guns makes communities less safe, not more. Let’s look at the evidence.

Does the prospect of armed police officers dissuade criminals from using guns? No. In fact, the opposite may be true. This is the mutual escalation argument: where cops carry guns, criminals think they need to as well, and more shootouts ensue. The more criminals respond in this way, the more police think they need to arm themselves, and so on. In the United States, this pattern has become so problematic that there is a growing argument for de-escalation by disarming police, but disarming an armed police force is much more difficult than not allowing arms to be routinely used in the first place. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is hard to put back in.

Okay, so arming police doesn’t actually make us safer, but do armed police nonetheless make communities feel safer? The evidence is mixed. While some people may feel safer when they see police with guns, some feel less safe. They worry about being shot by accident or unjustifiably, and the ambience created by seeing guns on the street is to some people an oppressive, rather than a liberating, one.

Does police use of firearms have a racially disproportionate impact? Yes. In a recent article for RNZ, ex-police officer Tim McKinnel pointed out that in the 10 years from January 2009 to January 2019, 66 percent of all New Zealanders shot (fatally and non-fatally) by police were Māori or Pasifika. Around 23 percent of New Zealanders identify as Māori and Pasifika, so that police shooting statistic is quite an indictment.

In the US, around 30 percent of people fatally shot by police are black Americans, while black Americans make up only 13 percent of the overall population. This is explained less by police officer racial bias, although in some cases that does exist, and more by differences in rates of exposure to police. ‘Exposure’ here means visibility and contact, whether through committing crimes or being ‘over-policed’, as we know indigenous and minority populations around the world are. In other words, the fatal shooting statistic is a form of indirect discrimination rather than outright racial bias by individual officers. But the effects – more dead black Americans – are the same. Those differences in rates of exposure to police are also what Māori and Pasifika experience in New Zealand, where Māori are almost eight times more likely than Pākehā to suffer police violence. The likely racial footprint of armed police in the community is there for all to see.

Are police entitled to protect themselves at the expense of citizen safety by carrying weapons? Surely not. The police sign up to be put in harm’s way. It is a reasonably foreseeable part of the job, where the job involves resolving conflict in society in a direct way and in circumstances that are often challenging. Policing is not an inherently safe business. It is sensible to manage those risks as much as possible, of course, but at some point the measures police might take to protect themselves spill over into making everyone else less safe. ARTs bring police guns continuously and routinely into communities and increase the danger to innocent civilians of being shot by police. They will also increase the risk of police shooting unarmed offenders and those carrying weapons other than firearms.

In fact, the evidence shows that, perhaps contrary to the common-sense expectations underpinning the ART trial, carrying guns or other weapons like TASERs doesn’t make police officers safer in the line of duty. The way to make officers safer is to reduce rates of violent crime, especially crimes involving firearms. Prevention is the key, not more shooting.

Does the New Zealand experience with TASERs give us reassurance that, contrary to the apparent international experience, more police guns in the community will enhance community safety here? No. TASERs were touted as a less lethal alternative to police guns. Yet they have not reduced the number of police shootings, and they have been catalysts for the escalation of police aggression. By a simple multiplication effect, more police weapons in society has led to a greater likelihood that they will be used. That much is simple statistical probability but there is also a so-called ‘weapons effect’, studied in social psychology. This finds that carrying weapons affects police behaviour, increasing aggressive responses to challenging situations. It can also increase the aggression of the offender being apprehended. A study in the United Kingdom recently found that the presence of a TASER was causally linked to a 48 percent higher incidence of force being used by police and also that assaults on police doubled where they had a TASER. This study shows the weapons effect in action: the presence of a TASER leads to increased aggression for both the public and police.

New Zealand is a society in which the liberal democratic traditions of policing should be absolutely at the forefront of decisions about how the police carry out their mandate. Those liberal democratic traditions involve policing by consent, in other words with the support of the population. This support and co-operation is the source of policing’s legitimacy. Trust and confidence in the police may be broadly evident in the Pākehā population of New Zealand but police–community relations are often strained and in some cases tenuous for Māori given their disproportionate entanglement in criminal justice. Studies in the US show that militarised police tactics, including the use of firearms, fuel historic tensions between police and marginalised communities rather than reducing those tensions. Think, for one example, about the riots in Ferguson, Missouri after police fatally shot Michael Brown and the ensuing civil disobedience campaigns.

The cutting edge of policing research internationally is about increasing the trust and confidence communities have in police, which supports the liberal democratic consensus about police legitimacy and pays dividends to police in terms of community safety and improved results. The Police Minister has even recently set as one of the key goals for the police that 90 percent of New Zealanders have trust and confidence in them. Where the research is telling us a high level of militarised policing erodes public trust and confidence in the police, while simultaneously failing to enhance officer safety and reduce crime, it is concerning to see ideas like ARTs being developed. This is especially so for a police force that, like so many internationally, has an ingrained problem with racially disparate effects.

Professor Simon Mackenzie, Dr Trevor Bradley and Master’s student Angus Lindsay are in the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. 

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