Crime in the City: Life-or-death decisions frontline cops face on the job


Cops in the public safety team, or PST, are the frontline officers who can find themselves responding often to firearms jobs. Some police dread the huge responsibility of being routinely armed. The wrong split-second decision can end a career, end a life.

And some voice concerns about not being trained well enough. There’s also the lingering worry about people who choose “suicide by cop” by deliberately provoking police into shooting them.

But one officer with experience policing in different countries says the Glock pistol in his lockbox, a few centimetres away from the driver’s seat, and a few seconds of jiggling with a key away, “may as well be on the moon”.

Another highly experienced police officer says delays in accessing firearms on the job mean unofficial advice to frontline staff encountering an armed offender often runs to one word, one syllable: “Run”.

It seems many officers support general arming, or measures to ensure firearms are more accessible. The Police Association earlier this month said 73 per cent of constabulary members felt they should be generally armed. Anecdotally, some police working the volatile, high-adrenaline night shifts in Auckland are strongly in favour of routine arming.

The situation does vary from place to place. Some police districts are compact, others are sprawling. In some areas, the Armed Offenders Squad takes longer to deploy than elsewhere. But senior police officers in different regions agree that the precious seconds – and microseconds – it takes to access weapons in patrol cars can be fatal.

Police spoken to recently don’t expect New Zealand’s policing environment to ever resemble that of the United States. That’s largely because far more civilians in the US carry guns, and firearms laws are much more permissive. In some US states, it’s widely expected that in many public settings, all or most adults present will be armed.

Some cops here seem to think the situation should more closely resemble Australia. Some say police would not be armed when going to court, visiting schools, or working in roles with no demonstrated safety or practical benefits to being armed.

Since the Herald went for ridealongs with cops across Auckland, several officers voiced concern at how susceptible the public might be to the charm offensives and PR stunts of local gangs. They’d like to point out that many gangs continue to earn money from organised crime, including from the intense suffering and misery emanating from methamphetamine.

These officers look quizzical when told of fears that routinely armed police mean criminals will tool up. They’ll point out that many criminals already have guns – and these firearms have been used to intimidate for years in inter-gang conflicts and standovers.

Differences today might exist because vast profits from meth, and the influx of ruthless or desperate 501 gangs from Australia, make some organised criminal groups more willing to use firearms than in the past.

The failure of the police Armed Response Teams has been widely attributed to a failed public relations narrative. One highly decorated senior police officer said leadership under the previous Police Commissioner rushed through the ARTs and presented the teams in a sinister, ominous fashion that unnerved communities.

It may be a case that the next step in arming police is general arming, or routine arming, in everything but name.

Or there may be a new set of teams which are Armed Response Teams in everything but name.

Or it may be something more nuanced, perhaps closely modelled on Australia but with distinctive Kiwi features.

Whatever the case, frontline cops called out to firearms jobs late at night don’t seem to care too much for political nuances, police top brass PR narratives, or Government face-saving exercises. They care about getting through their shifts, and getting home to their loved ones, alive.

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