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Once again, the South Canterbury committee, based in Timaru, which likes to style itself as the “Riveria of the South”, kept its pledge to provide a classic custard square when Police Association president Chris Cahill attended its annual meeting in June.

Crises and custard squares

In the midst of extraordinary times, at home and abroad, and with the future uncertain, the Police Association's annual meetings throughout the country had a lot to reflect on this year,.

Apart from the continued policing support required to maintain vigilance in the face of the Covid-19 global pandemic, members are still reeling from the killing of Constable Matthew Hunt, in Auckland, on June 19.

As committee chairs delivered their reports on the previous 12 months, the shocking death of a young officer during a traffic stop was top of mind, closely followed by policing in a pandemic and some pointed commentary on the scrapping of the armed response team (ART) trials.

The tragedy of Constable Hunt’s death also reignited pleas for general arming.

Henderson chair Michael Colson said it was time for an “open and frank” discussion involving all levels of Police and the Police Association to implement “best practice” to ensure a safe workplace.

From the other end of the country, South Canterbury chair Paul (Tosh) Hampton said the death of Matthew Hunt and the continuing rise in the unlawful use of firearms, which police faced daily, had removed any “false sense of security” he previously had at work.

For the second year in a row, staff in Canterbury have found themselves caught up in incidents of a global nature. Christchurch chair Mike Jackson said the district was coming to the end of a decade of historic events, including major earthquakes, the mosque shootings and now the pandemic, while Police staff were “still trying to have a balanced personal and home life”.

Addressing member concerns about “having the right tools” for frontline safety, Mike said: “Being generally armed is about giving members the ability to immediately defend themselves, as opposed to the situation of the unknown and the ‘too late’ of stopping vehicles or suddenly coming across a situation that requires immediate, reactive self-defence.”

Pursuits were another high-risk area with physical, psychological and employment-related consequences.
“We can only hope that the benefits we saw from the Eagle trial [in Christchurch] will return with a fulltime deployment soon.”

Feedback on the scrapping of the ART trial in three districts ranged from resigned disappointment to strong support for some form of ART. Taupō/Tokoroa chair AJ Munro said: “It feels like the public or media don’t want to acknowledge the increasing numbers of firearms incidents police deal with daily.”

In Taranaki, local committees shared how deeply staff had been affected when three officers in the province became the first members of Police to be charged with manslaughter in relation to a death in custody. “This will have caused many of us to reflect on things we have personally been involved in through our careers,” said North Taranaki chair Lewis Sutton.

In other districts, staff were at the sharp end of events that required a huge amount of extra work, such as the Whaakari/White Island eruption in the Bay of Plenty and the fires in Tasman.

However, it was the pandemic that affected staff nationwide. It changed the way police operated, Michael Colson said, with social distancing and hand-sanitising becoming the norm, along with carrying PPE as essential frontline equipment.

Staff also had to deal with ever-changing rosters, lockdown breaches, confusion around community checkpoints, attending family harm incidents and returning to their own families worried about the risks of exposure to the virus.

It required a rapid and flexible response, and police provided that, said North Shore, Rodney and Auckland Motorways chair Jesse Mowat. “In times of emergency, the value of sustaining a highly trained, highly flexible police service is crystal clear.”

Unfortunately, it also resulted in an increase in “the vile and disgusting habit” of offenders spitting at police officers. Waikato chair Derek Lamont said that, considering the potential impact on members and their families, his committee would like to see more options for prosecution and harsher penalties to reflect the seriousness of such assaults.

There were some upsides, noted by Tosh Hampton, such as lower crime rates, more walking than driving and more family time.

Many chairs noted, gratefully, an increase in new staff in some districts, tempered by the fact that in some areas the ratio of experienced officers to newer staff was not as well balanced as it should be to provide guidance and foster best policing.

In Gisborne, however, chair Brent Griffiths said insufficient staffing and attrition were continuing to plague Tairawhiti, an area where geography, demographics, isolation, high rates of unemployment and high levels of family harm and volume crime placed a significant strain on resources, even before the rostering demands of recent crises.

Otago Lakes Central chair Steven Watt’s report was both positive and poetic about the 2019/2020 year: “As always, our members have shone like the brightest stars on a frosty night, continuing to show the public that we are a united police force who can deal with everything that is thrown at us, backed by a strong Police Association that continues to sit in the background supporting our members during the most difficult of times.”

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