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Commissioner Andy Coster and Police Association president Chris Cahill both expressed concern and praise for the frontline when they spoke at the annual conference last month, and they pledged to ensure that good lines of communication continued between Police and the association.

Conference 2020: Putting PST first

Valuing and training the frontline are set to become hallmarks of Commissioner Andrew Coster’s tenure at the head of New Zealand Police.

Speaking to delegates at the annual conference, Mr Coster said the loss of Constable Matthew Hunt this year, killed during a routine traffic stop, had “reframed” things for the organisation.

Matthew’s death in June struck a deep chord with the new commissioner who took up his role in April.

“We can’t remove all risk,” he said, but losing someone in a common event, which occurred thousands of times a day, every week, across the country, meant it was time for a renewed focus on the coalface of policing.

Part of that commitment was to change how police thought about the role of public safety teams (PST).

“I’ve always found it strange that PST is the first place staff go, but always with designs to leave there. It is the sharp end of what we do, but it’s not seen as something to aspire to.”

That’s a perception he would like to change. “We put all our most junior people there from the outset rather than thinking it’s a place where we would want to bring some skills and experience. Is it right that people go straight into PST without exposure to other parts of our business? Can we give them greater knowledge before going in at the deep end?”

The vision of the FLSIP was that with more investment in training, the frontline could have “a more advanced kind of responder with a higher level of capability”.

“Over time, we have set up many specialist areas in Police and yet we don’t see advanced skills in responding to and managing frontline incidents being recognised in the same way.”

To that end, some current FLSIP priorities were: an extra five days of tactics and scenario training (already added at the college); better integrated intel around 3T events (ie, knowledge of associates and criminal histories before approaching a vehicle); raising awareness ahead of risks; and frank, “no-blame” debriefs when things go wrong.

Cognitive training to handle stress, already being taught at the college, was proving important too. “Evidence suggests that once the heart rate goes up, you can’t think straight. Staff need a fallback position to manage stress.”

He used the example of an officer at 3am, “eyeballs hanging out – understandably not at the top of their game. We have to help them bring their best game to higher risk situations every time”.

While valuing the frontline was advancing in terms of “broad thinking”, the bigger challenge, he told delegates, would be how to implement that thinking on training and remuneration within existing funding, “recognising that doing nothing is not an option”.

Mr Coster said he welcomed feedback from members on the issue.

Burglaries

On policing in general, Mr Coster said the organisation needed to get the basics right and that included responding to burglaries – “the offence that will affect the most New Zealanders in their lifetimes and is the most serious offence that will impact most New Zealanders”. “For a while I’ve had the view that we don’t quite to justice to burglary in the way the public expects us to.”

ARTs

In terms of the abandoned armed response teams (ARTs) trial, Mr Coster said the need remained for experienced police to be ready to respond to difficult situations.

The three things most objectionable to the public about the ARTs – being armed, being in different vehicles and being called ARTs – were not that essential to the trial, he said. “What was important was that they were ready to respond to difficult incidents when needed. We know our people felt very supported. Some of the value was the transfer of knowledge from the AOS to the frontline.”

The outcome of an evaluation of the ARTs trial was due soon.

Covid-19

Policing by consent continued to be a priority. “We know we are a very thin blue line, so it is important.”

The policy had been tested in a time of Covid-19, but New Zealand was one of the few jurisdictions that hadn’t had to deal with violent protests over government policies. “That’s because of the style of policing we have in this country and the policing we chose to use during the crisis. Normally, we police on the margins, but in this case, we had to take the entire community on a journey with us.”

Police actions must be perceived as fair, reasonable and proportionate, he said, and “our frontline are the ones who really influence whether we have that trust”.

He was proud of the organisation and where it was at, but Police could not rest on its laurels. “We are only as good as last week, month or year in the public’s eye.”

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