Friday, November 6, 2020

Dave Witherow: Crime and Punishment

New Zealand, by international standards, has always had a very low crime-rate. We rank as the second-safest country in the world, according to the Global Peace Index, and for the last twenty years or more our crime-rate has been trending generally downward. Criminal offenses involving firearms are especially rare, amounting  to less than one percent.

Our Police, in keeping with this relatively benign environment, have traditionally been unarmed, and throughout the twentieth century they themselves have argued that the routine carrying of weapons, rather than affording protection, might well provoke the criminals to respond in kind. A glance at the U.S. statistics strongly reinforces this conclusion.

 It is curious then, that in recent years there has been a radical change in attitude, and that police now perceive themselves to be chronically endangered. So serious is the supposed threat that officers - already provided with easy access to guns - are now to be issued with state-of-the-art body-armour. Not just the Armed Offenders Squads, whose existing equipment is to be updated, but every officer in the country is to be fitted with a customized suit of Kevlar, at a total cost of $20 million.

 No-one, naturally, would wish to deny the provision of essential life-saving equipment - and a mere twenty million, in these days of confetti-money, is no more than a drop in the vast ocean of our expanding national debt. But why, at this particular point in time, has such an investment been deemed essential? Are our police really at unprecedented risk?

 Since records began in 1890 a total of 33 police officers have died in the line of duty - an average of about one every four years. The most lethal periods were between 1940 and 1960, with seven fatalities, and between 1960 and 1980, with nine. Subsequent to this the toll went down to five police deaths per twenty-year period - culminating in an eleven-year interval with no fatalities until a single death in 2020.

 The police, as this record shows, are now less at risk of lethal danger than at any period in their history - despite a greatly-expanded population and an alleged superabundance of guns.

 But perhaps there are other considerations that might be relevant.

Has our society in general become more lawless, with more violent crime, requiring a precautionary and defensive response by the police?

 Again the facts speak otherwise. The murder-rate peaked thirty years ago, at 24 per million people, and then rapidly declined to less than half of that - a very low level by global standards. Yet throughout this latter period the police have consistently behaved as though violent criminality was out of control. They have increased their range of weaponry. Armed Offenders Squads have been organized, and suburban shoot-outs involving deranged offenders and para-military policemen have ceased to be a novelty. Yet despite their theatrical attributes the wisdom of these macho showdowns has never been adequately proven.

 The Christchurch massacre, of course, changed everything. Old yardsticks vanished overnight, and New Zealand’s peaceable image was shredded. But in the understandable national anguish that followed it was seldom made clear that this atrocity was not home-grown. It was the work of a foreigner, a criminal alien activated by pathological hatreds.

 This mass murder could not have been predicted. It was a Black Swan event, at odds with New Zealand’s history - yet it was used by the police as an opportune excuse to confiscate sporting guns from thousands of law-abiding citizens. No gangster or criminal has been deprived of a weapon by this myopic vindictiveness, and the fact that the then-existing laws, if properly-administered by the police, would have denied the Christchurch murderer his arsenal, has been conveniently forgotten.

 Who, really, is at risk from our ever-more-militarized constabulary?

The police themselves are under negligible threat, as the data clearly show. It is the public at large who are now endangered - the public whose lives and welfare the police are charged with protecting.

More New Zealanders have been killed by police in the last ten years than in the previous forty - and the level of violence seems to be increasing. In the past thee years alone eight people have died - twelve times the rate in the United Kingdom, where organized crime is much more entrenched and terrorism a constant reality.

 There is no valid justification for these officially-sanctioned killings. There is no crime-wave in this country, yet more and more our police behave like bit-players in some blitzed-out American melodrama of feral civic dysfunction. Specialist squads - armour-clad and festooned with weaponry - deploy at every opportunity, elevating quite minor incidents to a quasi-military significance. Suburban streets are cleared of bystanders, tensions increase, tempers flare, and, all too often, people die.

 Policing, like putting out fires, can never be entirely risk-free. But when the risk is transferred from the police to the public - and then increased by an order of magnitude - we need to ask some questions. Somewhere in very recent times we have gone seriously astray.

Dave Witherow, who was a long time columnist with the Otago Daily Times, emigrated to New Zealand from Northern Ireland in 1971. He's an author, script writer, and worked as a scientist for Fish and Game.


Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

>"Criminal offenses involving firearms are especially rare, amounting to less than one percent."
But NZ has a higher rate of mass shootings PER CAPITA for the 50-year period ending last year than the US. See my analysis on this website "When guns become part of popular culture" Breaking Views 7 September 2019.
>"The Christchurch massacre, of course, changed everything. Old yardsticks vanished overnight, and New Zealand’s peaceable image was shredded."
It is irrational to change a national image because of ONE event. Always treat rare events with caution. A good analogy is that of aviation accidents. One plane goes down and many people then say that that airline is unsafe. That's nonsense.

Dave Witherow said...

The reaction to Christchurch was definitely irrational - but it happened all the same. And the police used this nonsensical reaction to confiscate not just military-style semi-automatic weapons but ordinary hunting guns of improbable massacre-potential. If they had stuck to the former there could have been very little complaint.
Comparing the frequencies of mass shootings between NZ and the US is well-nigh meaningless (or, as Bernard Vlaardingerbroek himself points out (7/919): "very wobbly from a statistical point of view"). More intelligence and less knee-jerk panic would be nice now and again.