Too many guns, not enough cops says police union

Police Association president Chris Cahill says new resourcing is not enough. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

A pre-election policy document from the police union contains a familiar refrain – arm our officers – but warnings it includes about staffing struggles and firearm proliferation are concerning. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Illegal firearms are everywhere, and police are struggling to cope with the demands of their job.

That was the message from the Police Association, as it released its law and order policy on Thursday.

The document was a far leaner, more pointed affair than the previous iteration.

An Association staffer noted before the press conference that they had gone with a “less preachy” approach, while president Chris Cahill said they had moved away from a “moan list” to more clear policies that could make a difference.

In essence, there was little that the association have not called for before.

There was the familiar call to arm police and the fulltime carriage of tasers.

Tackling the growing methamphetamine, gang, and fleeing driver problems were singled out as important for the country, as they continue to proliferate.

But the difference, Cahill urged, was that both staffing levels, and New Zealand’s firearms problem, were reaching breaking point.

The policy document, Towards a safer New Zealand, and Cahill’s subsequent speech, focused on those two areas.

The policy also promotes greater protection for police staff, including statutory protections to prevent the unjustifiable targeting of officers in private prosecutions and civil suits.

More firearms than we realise

The Association described the increasing use of firearms by criminals as the most concerning issue facing New Zealand police.

Cahill, who used to manage the Auckland District before becoming president, said he had no idea how bad the problem actually was across the country.

He described several incidents relayed to him by members, including a young officer who stopped a vehicle in Otahuhu only to spot a revolver inside.

The officer backed off, armed-up with his partner and arrested the man, afterwards finding methamphetamine and a sawn-off shotgun in the boot.

“It doesn’t take much of an imagination that could have turned out a lot worse if that person was high on meth and acted differently, we’d have an officer dead on the road and that car racing off. They’re not one-off incidents I’m telling you, they’re the sort of things I’m hearing every single day.”

Another member relayed a story about a criminal arrested four different times in a year, each time with a new firearm.

Cahill put the increase down to a change in behaviour by gangs.

“It’s just a change of culture, we believe, amongst criminals that in the past they didn’t all carry firearms, now it’s increased within one group and they’re all deciding they need to be armed up.”

Earlier this month, Police Minister Paula Bennett ignored the majority of recommendations from the Law and Order Select Committee on illegal firearms.

She adopted only seven of the 20 recommendations, including requiring police to record serial numbers of all firearms when inspected or when licences were renewed, and making dealers record ammunition sales.

Cahill took the opportunity yesterday to again slam the decision, stating it would likely lead to a loss of life.

“We believe we’ll be on the right side of this debate, unfortunately the reason we’re going to be on the right side is tragedies will result.”

But Labour’s police spokesman Stuart Nash, who was present at the press conference, said he largely agreed with Bennett’s decision to ignore the rulings.

He had viewed a police document where it was acknowledged that the firearms community were frustrated by police processes around licensing because the level and knowledge of the Act was woeful.

“My view is the police need to get their own house in order,” Nash said.

Cahill admitted police needed to “sharpen up their game” around licencing and vetting, but believed there still needed to be greater restrictions.

Thanks for the extra officers, but we need more

After mounting pressure about police resourcing and a pledge from Labour and NZ First to fund more officers, the Government announced its own package in February.

The $503 million will pay for 880 more sworn officers and 245 non-sworn staff, to be spread over four years.

But Cahill said that while the union was thankful for the funding, you could not arrest and imprison your way to safer communities and more money was needed to target under-resourced areas.

He pointed out that by 2021, when all the extra staff were hired, the population-to-police ratio would be worse than it is now.

“What we’re saying about the resourcing…is the idea of waiting till police numbers reach a crisis point then coming out with a big lump in election year is not the answer, you need to identify the needs of resourcing and drip-feed those increases in over time so we don’t reach a crisis point.”

He accepted this was a big ask, but introducing a ratio where police were regularly increased to match the population was a more sensible approach.

In Queensland the ratio was one officer to 423 people, which Cahill believed would be a good fit for New Zealand. The current ratio here is one to 538.

Without the increase, areas such as youth crime and fraud would struggle to be adequately addressed, he said.

Nash was more sympathetic to this plea from Cahill, agreeing with the need to increase the ratio but unsure on an exact number.

The police had pleaded to Cabinet for more funding but had not been successful.

More money was needed and new officers needed to be introduced faster.

To pay for them, the rising prison population needed to be reduced and by increasing resources to police in areas such as youth work should help achieve that, he said.

The likelihood of extra police funding on top of what has already been announced looks slim, however, with Bennett calling a population ratio a “crude” way to look at staffing.

“At the moment the police commissioner allocates staff based on need. In some high need areas this is a much lower ratio per population than the Association is calling for. A ten percent increase in police is significant and the largest we’ve seen in decades,” she said.