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Fears new armed police patrols will put Māori at risk

By Te Aniwa Hurihanganui of RNZ.co.nz

There are fears a six-month trial of police patrol vehicles carrying armed officers might mean Māori being targeted more than any other group.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced last week Armed Response Teams (ARTs) will start patrolling Counties Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury at the end of the month.

One of those teams was sent to Wairoa yesterday ahead of the planned pilot - following a shooting at a police officer's house and the station there.

But some Māori, including the whānau of a man fatally wounded by police in 2000, aren't convinced it will make their lives any safer.

Raewyn Wallace is still grieving the loss of her son Steven, 20 years after he was fatally wounded by police in Waitara.

A senior constable fired four shots at the 23 year old, after he was approached by Steven holding a baseball bat and threatening to kill him.

An IPCA report later found police actions were justified, but his mother has never been satisfied with that decision.

Raewyn Wallace said she now feared that with more armed police on the streets, more people were going to die.

"It's very concerning, they're already out of control. Give them a gun and they're gonna be more out of control," she said.

"How many people have been killed since Steven got killed by the police? And how many times have they been held accountable?"

Prominent lawyer Moana Jackson said it was very likely making arms more accessible to police would put Māori at greater risk of being shot than any other group.

"I do acknowledge the efforts that the police have made to try and improve relationships with Māori, but at the same time, history and experience shows that the people who are most likely to be hurt or even killed by any escalation of police access to weapons is Māori.

"I think that for Māori who think about this issue there will be some very real concern about this policy."

Mr Jackson said police should have access to firearms in some situations, but making them routinely available was going down a slippery slope.

"I think they should have, as they do in their current policy, access to arms when there is reasonable cause for their use. But to take the first step towards a much more readily available use of guns is, I think, is potentially dangerous."

The new ARTs will be based in the districts with the highest number of firearms seized, located and surrendered.

They will be patrolling the streets seven days a week, and will focus on firearm and weapon related call-outs.

However, Black Power gang spokesperson Eugene Ryder said arming police would not make communities any safer and, if anything, it would motivate firearm owners to carry weapons.

"If it's common knowledge that police are going be going into situations armed, it creates the situation where people in those positions are going to feel like they need to arm themselves against the police.

"It's that old saying, you don't take a knife to a gun fight, and if people think they're gonna be threatened with firearms by police and they have firearms, there's probably more potential for them to use them. Nothing good can come out of this."

He said the policy was particularly concerning for Māori, who were already over-represented in rates of incarceration and police pursuits.

"When there are Māori involved in anything that requires a police presence, it's a fact I think that Māori will be targeted because they already are.

"If society think that having armed officers will keep them safe then I suppose we're really heading into a bad direction. That doesn't provide a sense of safety for our people and our communities."

In a statement, police said they were aware of the concerns people had about ARTs.

"Police is aware that some people may have concerns about the deployment of ARTs. However, we must recognise that the environment has changed and Police's capability and resourcing needs to reflect this.

"Police expects the pilot will show that ARTs improve Police's ability to respond to rapidly evolving situations with specialist skills and expertise, minimising risks and enhancing safety of all communities.

"Unfortunately, Māori are over-represented in the criminal justice system as both victims and offenders and this is reflected in the Tactical Options Reporting each year. Police is actively working with our communities, our partners, and the justice sector to improve outcomes for Māori."

Feedback will be sought by police before deciding whether the armed response teams should be rolled out nationally.

A Police Armed Response Team vehicle. Source: Supplied