Deploying tasers in NZ an extremely bad idea

What was Police Commissioner Howard Broad up to last week?

On Wednesday afternoon Minister of Police Annette King made a statement to Parliament saying Police Commissioner Howard Broad had decided to arm police with tasers but he wanted MP approval before confirming the decision.

It was, we were told, an unprecedented move in what the Government believed was an operational decision for the police alone to make. It looked like Commissioner Broad was seeking some kind of democratic input on a controversial issue.

It’s not the way the police normally go about things. When they announced the taser trial it was just that, a decision made without prior consultation. They weren’t interested in input from the public or politicians.

After such a bold break with tradition one might have thought the commissioner would seek some input from MPs, invite submissions and even hold a few meetings to discuss concerns perhaps.

But none of this happened. By 9.44am the next morning, less than 20 hours after his expressed desire to consult with MPs, Howard Broad had made his decision final.

In a bizarre statement he said that because nothing new had emerged from the debate in Parliament (not that there was a debate of any substance) the previous day he saw no need to delay finalisation of his decision further. No meetings, no letters, no consultation, just a passing ear to a parliamentary squabble and he has had enough to make up his mind. There can be no pretence this was anything other than a sham.

Consulting MPs would have been a safe bet in any case because most would be too afraid to speak out for fear of seeming soft on law and order in the lead-up to an election. Rather than consultation Broad wanted some political cover for what is a very unpopular decision across many community groups. It represents another move along the path to policing by force rather than policing by consent.

This is the inevitable path followed by police who are increasingly outside the democratic oversight and control of the community. The world has plenty of examples where police are a law unto themselves.

For just a minute there it looked like Broad recognised this danger and was prepared to engage with MPs, at least, even if consulting the great unwashed populace was a bridge too far.

Left out of media reporting has been the fact that less than a week before Howard made his announcement the police finally released, after a long battle, fuller information about the police taser trial and the incidents where they were deployed. Previously the police had provided only sketchy details of these incidents but even based on this scant information it became clear the original guidelines were repeatedly breached during the trial.

After a complaint to the Ombudsman’s office, the Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem reported “Many of the summaries are extremely brief, and have the overall effect of sanitising the original reports”. No surprises here. She advised the police they should release the information. They finally did so 10 days ago but not in a way which allowed any public discussion before Commissioner Broad made his final decision.

The simple truth is the police don’t want public scrutiny, despite Howard Broad’s attempt to imply otherwise. They don’t want public discussion of their self-justified actions and they do their best to stifle uncomfortable information from being released. The most important culture change needed for the police is for them to embrace democratic oversight and accountability of their policies, decisions and actions. We are far from it.

The decision to deploy tasers is bad for New Zealand. After more than 300 deaths in North America (including at least five last month and eight in July) the first taser death here will most likely be someone who is poor, mentally ill and Maori. The profile of deaths in the US follows the usual socio-economic pattern overlayed with race and as Maori Party leader Tariana Turia pointed out, the disproportionate use of tasers against poor African-Americans in the US will be repeated here.

A police officer in the US has just pleaded to a charge of manslaughter after a 21-year-old African-American man died after being shocked with a taser nine times while handcuffed and in police custody.

The recent incident in Whakatane where a young Maori man was pepper-sprayed repeatedly in the police cells by several officers acting together will be repeated but this time with a taser.

The only place for a taser here in New Zealand is as an alternative to the use of arms by the armed offenders squad.