President's Column: The toughest call an officer will ever make

NZPA - Chris Cahill | Thu February 1st, 2018

In this issue of Police News, officers living with the consequences of having taken a life in the line of duty tell their side of the story.

What they have to say powerfully represents voices that all too often are lost in the post-incident publicity of such tragic events.

Pulling the trigger is, without doubt, the toughest call an officer will ever make, and the rules surrounding it are clear – it must be self-defence or defence of another and has to withstand a robust legal test.

It is the most scrutinised action an officer will undertake and the consequences are severe – for the person who has been killed, for their family and friends and also for the officer and his or her family and friends.

These critical incidents are always publicly dissected, with the benefit of hindsight, by those who will never know the repercussions of taking such an action. Shooting another person is a traumatic event – one that most members of society never expect to have to experience.

A recent series of articles on police shootings published by Stuff suggested there was a significant problem with the number and type of police shootings in New Zealand. While it is absolutely appropriate that the use of lethal force by officers be subjected to intense investigation, context is part of that scrutiny and needs to be recognised in analysis of critical incidents.

There is little to be gained by comparing New Zealand to Australia when Australians have grown up with an armed police force and armed offenders fully expect that, if they confront an officer, there is a real prospect they will be shot. That is not the case in New Zealand and there’s a possibility that some who have confronted police might have acted differently if they knew they were facing an armed officer.

Comparison to the United Kingdom is also problematic. Unlike the UK, New Zealand has a gun culture and relatively easy access to firearms (although there are indications that is changing in Britain, particularly in London – see story next page). The chance of a confrontation between an armed offender and an armed police officer is much higher here.

Every action of an officer who shoots a member of our society is investigated by the Independent Police Conduct Authority, Police and the Coroner. This combination of investigations and reports can sometimes take years and that has an impact on all the parties involved.

If a police shooting in New Zealand fails to meet the legal prescription under the Crimes Act, the officer will be prosecuted. That has never happened here. There has been one private prosecution taken against an officer and that failed.

Police and the Association are duty bound to ensure that the welfare of officers involved in critical incidents is at the forefront of a current Police review of such events. For members who have stepped up, placed their lives on the line and had to make a split-second decision in an emergency, their welfare must be at the core of our response.

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