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Controversy surrounds New Zealand Police taser announcement

NZ Security, October 2015

Stunning results: Tasers shown to de-escalate violent and threatening situations.Stunning results: Tasers shown to de-escalate violent and threatening situations.

 

On the morning of 31 July, New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced that all level one police responders will routinely carry Tasers. It was a decision, he stated on his commissioner’s blog, which was “based on feedback from frontline staff and an extensive review of the use of Tasers since they became available to staff in March 2010.”

But the move was immediately met with criticism and controversy. News reports suggested that Police Minister Michael Woodhouse had been taken unaware by the announcement. A press release from his office later that day, however, welcomed it, calling the Taser rollout “an important step to help ensure the safety of both the community and our frontline officers.”

 

Why Tasers?

According to NZ Police’s Ten One magazine, the measure follows several months of detailed consideration by police top brass and is informed by an extensive review of the use of Tasers since they were made available to frontline staff more than five years ago.

The police data suggests that Taser is extremely safe and effective compared with other tactical options. Official crime statistics show a 34.7 percent decline in injury-causing assaults on police officers between 2010 and 2014.

According to the Police, in the majority of cases, simply showing or presenting a Taser is sufficient to de-escalate violent and threatening situations. Police Tactical Options Reporting data shows that during the more than 30,000 reported incidents attended by police officers, the devices were discharged only once for every nine times they were shown or presented.

There are plenty of examples, says the Commissioner, where Tasers have provided a life-saving alternative to a firearm. “The subject injury rate for Taser is just over one percent,” he wrote in his blog, “much lower than for other tactical options such as the ASP baton and OC spray.” It is a preferred option to resorting to the use of firearms, which, he comments, remains a last resort.

The change will increase the Police’s current cache of 1,000 Tasers by 400- 600 new units to be purchased from within Police’s current budget. According to executive director of the New

Zealand Security Association (NZSA) Greg Watts, the Taser roll out doesn’t substantively change things. “Police have already had access to Tasers for some time,” says Watts. “The recent change merely makes tasers more accessible to police officers, effectively making them a side arm.”

 

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The debate

The Police Association has come out strongly in favour of the announcement. According to Association President Greg O’Connor, the Taser announcement “is a courageous, sensible and timely decision by the Commissioner, and acknowledges the realities of modern policing, where police face a generation of offenders who are prepared to ‘have a go’ when confronting police officers.”

To back this up, a Police Association media release quotes a recent Nielsen survey that found 73% of the New Zealand public agreed that police officers should be permitted to carry Tasers at all times.

But there are plenty of people opposed to the change. Human rights lawyer Michael Kidd, for example, has stated that Taser use by police is prone to overreaction and mistakes. Mr Kidd represented Auckland man Jimmy Taua, who was tasered three to four times after police had been called to his house because of a loud stereo.

Despite some injuries, thankfully no Taser deaths have been reported in New Zealand, but this is not the case elsewhere, including Australia. Former Green MP Keith Locke, who has been a critic of Tasers since they were introduced in 2007, has commented that death of Kevin Norris early this year after being tasered by police in the New South Wales town of Mittagong, should be a wake up call.

Mr Kidd warns that the next step from Tasers is the arming of police with guns, although he doesn’t see crime escalating in New Zealand to an extent that would justify this.

The NZSA’s Mr Watts agrees that any further arming of police just wouldn’t make sense. “Violent crime rates in New Zealand do not support the position for further arming of law enforcement here,” he suggests. “Our laws and social fabric are incomparable to those found in the U.S. and other jurisdictions where police routinely carry side arms.”

“Certainly any further routine arming of police would contribute to a sense of unease and insecurity within our society,” he continues. “Images on television of police carrying automatic weapons in other countries suggest to viewers that these are risky places. New Zealand is, by international standards, a relatively safe country, and a more highly weaponised police force would send out the wrong message.

The jury is still out as to whether or not the routine carrying of Tasers will actually reduce the incidence of police presenting firearms. Data from other jurisdictions suggests that the carriage of Tasers does not necessarily result in less police use of guns, and nor does it necessarily stop criminals from using guns either. According to Mr Watts, “Tasers will not reduce the ability of criminals to access firearms, and will not reduce their propensity to use them.”

As the roll-out of routine Taser carriage runs its course, we can expect the surrounding debate to continue.

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