Meanwhile, a candid report from the police executive reveals frontline staff are increasingly finding calls too risky to attend and dog handlers routinely put their lives at risk.
But Police Minister Chris Hipkins denies New Zealand has reached the point of American-style militarized policing, despite the country having recorded more than 1,000 Armed Offender Squad (AOS) deployments this year only.
Figures obtained by National Police spokesman Mark Mitchell via written parliamentary questions show an overall increase of 64 per cent in AOS calls from 2017, when there were 1,034 nationwide, at 1694 last year.
This year alone there were 1004 in the year to July, meaning 2022 is on track to be another banner year for AOS calls at the current rate.
Since 2017, all 12 police districts in New Zealand have seen an increase in AOS calls, five of which more than doubled in 2021: Waitematā (106%), Auckland City (107%), Northland (147%), Counties Manukau (174%) and Southern (216%).
But it’s the Eastern District, which stretches from the top of the Eastern Cape south to Hawke’s Bay, that stands out in 2022 for AOS calls, recording 232, more than double most other districts. In May alone, there were 86 deployments in the East, of which 83 were pre-planned.
June also had more than one a day.
Inspector Andrew Sloan, acting commander of the Eastern District, said it was the result of major operations targeting gangs in Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti.
They included Operation Bloodhound, targeting Mongrel Mob and Black Power, which involved raids on homes and cars across the district and recovered 30 firearms and resulted in over two dozen people being charged.
As part of this operation, a raid found a man making firearms and homemade explosives. Officers descending on Hawke’s Bay property found several homemade guns and IEDs.
Operation Kotare centered on gang violence and a series of drive-by shootings in Wairoa and Tairawhiti.
Sloan said Bloodhound and Kotare accounted for 79 of the AOS deployments in the East in May this year.
“AOS were deployed to support the pre-planned execution of search warrants related to these operations, due to the higher risk posed to General Duty Officers executing the warrants,” he said.
“In addition, comfort patrols including AOS personnel are conducted following high profile violent incidents, to reassure the community and increase the availability of tactically trained personnel to support the front line.
“Sometimes these comfort patrols operate 24/7, and each patrol is noted as a separate AOS deployment.”
Mitchell said he believed the numbers resulted from an increase in high-level organized crime involving offenders more willing to use guns.
“I think it’s a clear response to a serious, high-level offense,” he said.
But he doesn’t think New Zealand should break with tradition and routinely introduce an armed force.
“As a general rule, we are against general armament.”
In 2019, months after the Christchurch mosque terror attacks, police introduced a trial of Armed Response Teams (ART), mobile units of officers equipped with firearms ready to respond at short notice. They were dropped after a six-month trial in Canterbury, Manukau and Waikato counties amid criticism over lack of consultation with Māori and claims they targeted marginalized communities.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said in 2020 that the teams, unveiled by his predecessor Mike Bush, did not match the style of policing Kiwis were used to.
Mitchell told the Herald he would have kept the ART model if he was in government.
In 2021, the police executive agreed to test a new Tactical Response Model (TRM).
A governance paper prepared for the police leadership team in July 2021, published in the Herald under the Official Information Act, cited officers’ concern about the level of sophistication of organized crime groups in due to the impact of 501 deportees from Australia.
Police regularly encountered illegal firearms and other weapons and there was “a perceived hardening of the criminal mindset and a willingness to use violence against the police”, according to the newspaper.
“Frontline staff said they were increasingly finding themselves in situations where they felt ill-equipped and unsafe.
“This is often due to a combination of feeling inadequately trained or supported, as well as the known – and unknown – risks of firearms and violent offenders they encounter in their daily work.”
The newspaper said some staff avoided high-risk jobs because they felt unprepared and in danger.
The proposed TRM model more than doubled tactical training – including firearms instruction – for frontline officers and would create up to 60 new AOS personnel.
He also suggested creating dual-manned canine units, meaning the handler, who usually works alone with the dog, would be joined by an AOS-level officer.
“Being a dog handler is often considered the most dangerous job in the police,” the newspaper said.
“They are often required to hunt unknown offenders, in an unfamiliar environment, day or night – without support,” the newspaper said.
Late last year, Coster announced that Northland and Central districts would test a full version of TRM, and Manukau and Waikato counties would test parts of the model.
Police Minister Chris Hipkins declined a request for an interview, but said in a statement that the police focus on gang activity had led to an increased need for AOS deployments.
“This does not indicate higher levels of gun crime; rather, it is a sign that this government has less tolerance for illegal weapons and criminal gang behavior than the previous national government.”
Asked if he was concerned about New Zealand moving more towards an American style of armed policing, Hipkins said he “strongly disagrees with that assessment”.
“In New Zealand, we have a community-based approach to policing, working with iwi and communities to police by consent,” the statement said.
“The policing of the occupation in Parliament and at roadblocks during the pandemic demonstrates this approach.
“In terms of the tactical approach to policing, its aim is to ensure that frontline tactical operators and specialists have the appropriate training, equipment and support to ensure they can respond appropriately to all the situations they face.”