Frontline police fear for their safety as number of armed gang members grows

Police officers are becoming increasingly fearful of pulling cars over due to the number of firearms now being carried by gang members.

It has gotten to the stage where many frontline staff are now wearing uncomfortable ballistic plates inside their stab-resistant vests for extra precaution and one officer, who has been shot at, said he now lies to his family about how his day has gone.

It’s been a year since Constable Matthew Hunt was shot dead, and his colleague badly injured, after stopping a car in West Auckland. Since then a number of initiatives have been introduced to try to improve safety for frontline staff.

However, new figures show that in the 10 months following his death there were 18 cases where a gun was fired, or pointed in the direction of, a police officer, police car or a police dog. That doesn’t include other jobs where firearms have been found at a job but not used as weapons.

While no one has been injured in the shootings, the windscreen of at least one car was peppered with shot and a police dog was critically injured after being hit in the jaw in the Far North.

But, frontline officers say those statistics are only the tip of the iceberg, as it’s increasingly common to find guns in cars they pull over.

“I think the public would be shocked if they had a true grasp of how dangerous it is out there,” said one officer who has previously been shot at while trying to stop a car that was believed to have been involved in a robbery.

“If I told any of my family about the jobs I attend now they wouldn’t be impressed. I actually lie to my family now. You don’t want them to worry.”

Police Association President Chris Cahill said while the number of weapons fired at police since Hunt’s death may sound low it would only take one shot to make its target and the numbers become very grim.

He said firearms were frequently being found on jobs where an offender might not have fired them, but certainly had access to them.

“From an officer’s point of view a firearm in the door or footwell of a car is still a considerable risk, it’s not a big step to presenting it.”

Cahill said part of the problem was the fact it was a lot easier for criminals to access firearms in New Zealand. Another was the growing gang tensions.

“Without a doubt the increased gang tensions and increased gang membership has led to the escalation of carrying firearms.

“It sort of starts off that they carry them to protect themselves against each other and then it flows on that they start to use them and then it flows into them using them to prevent themselves from being arrested or the other concern of course is members of the public getting caught in the middle of those confrontations where firearms are used and we’ve seen that in recent times.”

Police Assistant Commissioner Tusha Penny said nothing was more important or critical than the safety of all people and communities across Aotearoa New Zealand.

“This includes our people.”

She said a number of initiatives have been rolled out since Hunt’s death to try to improve safety.

They include a week-long course designed to enhance safety for officers on the job; more training for recruits focused on de-escalation and tactical responses; additional tactical equipment, including Tasers and firearms; and technology enhancements that make it easier for officers to show where they are on a job.

Frontline officers have also been given tourniquets & trauma bandages to help them provide better first aid for serious injuries like gunshot wounds until medical assistance can arrive.

Cahill said while some of the new initiatives, particularly the course, have proved really popular with staff it was an unfortunate reality that it will only be a matter of time before another police officer is shot dead.

“We can do everything we can to try to prevent it but I think it would be naive to say that something like that won’t happen in the future given the risks that are out there.”

The experienced frontline officer, who didn’t want to be identified, said there had been a big increase in gang tension and violence recently.

While he doesn’t want to blame it all on the 501 deportees from Australia he said that’s been one the biggest changes since the increase in violence and all of the recent incidents he’s been called to involving firearms have been gang linked in some way.

He said shifts start with intel reports from around the region.

“In one 24-hour period we were sent four notifications saying there were people who were likely to be dangerous, likely to be in possession of firearms. That never happened when I joined the police.”

He said traffic stops are one of the biggest concerns now as officers had no idea what they were going to find.

“That’s the most dangerous for us, the traffic stops.”

He said there appeared to be more firearms in the hands of criminals, especially gang members, in the past year – and a growing prevalence to “use them against us”.

He has been involved in three incidents involving firearms in the past few months and previously been shot at while trying to stop a car – something that absolutely stunned him.

“I didn’t actually believe it, even though it had happened to me. It was pure shock, I was armed and I knew they were armed but I couldn’t actually believe that they had shot at us.
Even in the morning I still couldn’t believe they had turned their firearms on us because it doesn’t really happen in New Zealand.

“But, lately, it’s getting beyond a joke really.”

The officer believes it’s getting to the point where officers need to be armed – before someone else is shot.

“It’s probably only goodwill of the offenders I guess that they are allowing us to arrest them.”

Hunt’s mother Diane Hunt, also fears further tragedy is inevitable.

“I do believe that it will happen again. It’s just around the corner. How many officers have to lose their lives before they can have the equipment to save themselves?”

She said she thought New Zealand was a safe place when she encouraged her son to join the force but quickly learnt otherwise following his death just two and a half years later.

Then, just two weeks after the 28-year-old was killed, she was contacted by the parents of another officer who said their 21-year-old had just had a pistol pointed at him by a dirtbiker doing a drug run in Glen Eden.

“I realised New Zealand has changed so much. I’m 62 and in my day a lot of men would have a baseball bat under their carseat but these days young people think they are from LA and they all have a gun. Police tell me what we know is a drop in the bucket of what’s going on out there.”

Diane Hunt said she now believes it’s time New Zealand police were armed.

“I do believe that New Zealand is no longer just this island down the bottom of the world. The criminality here is the same as anywhere else in the world and we just haven’t adapted. Our police need to have protection.

“Why should those working on the road have a Taser or a gun locked away [in the boot] when there’s a chance there’s going to be a gun in the vehicle.

“The police told us that if they flag a vehicle of interest and see any gang associations then they avoid stopping the car because there will be a gun in there. They don’t want to die and I don’t want them to either. It was never something I thought would happen to my son.”

Cahill said the increasing use of firearms by criminals is in part just a reflection of the times.

“To some degree we are just flowing on from what happens in other parts of the world where criminals carry firearms and use them. Unfortunately we are not immune to what happens in other parts of the world.”

He said there have been some good improvements in terms of firearms control – the recent gun buyback and banning of semi-automatic assault weapons – but he believes a firearms register will make the biggest change going forward as it will make it harder for criminals to access the deadly weapons.

“It makes existing owners more responsible about safely storing their weapons. That’s shown in Australia where the theft of firearms dropped by 10,000 in the first year of a firearms register because gun owners took more responsibility for them.”

He said a register would also make it easier to identify when people are buying multiple weapons and selling them to criminals because it would be obvious something was amiss if checks were done and the weapons weren’t at the owner’s home.

Cahill stressed the majority of licensed firearms holders were responsible but said it was time for change.

“The reality is because we have let things get so out of control and we have no idea how many firearms are in New Zealand it is going to take a long time to get that under control. Many people would say the horse has already bolted but you’ve got to draw a line somewhere and start.

“At the moment every time we seize a firearm it seems they can get another one. Eventually with better controls hopefully that won’t be the case.”

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