Policing in New Zealand

Reading the online version of my local paper today, I was struck by the differences between New Zealand and the United States. The top story – so I presume it’s on the front-page of the dead tree version – has the headline “Armed police brought in to arrest man in Christchurch.”

This obviously wouldn’t be newsworthy in United States or other countries with highly militarized police forces.  American officers routinely carry pistols and, if TV shows like Cops are any indication, are willing to get them out at every opportunity. Down here, the police don’t carry firearms and the use of the Armed Offenders Squad is relatively rare.

I think this is a major factor in the general professionalism and reasonableness of New Zealand cops. While there are bound to be a few sociopaths in any police force, police brutality and arrogance seem much less common here than in the States.

Compare and contrast:

To my knowledge, no reliable measures of police misconduct exist, but I don’t think this is just denominator-blindness: pointing guns at, tasing, pepper-spraying, or handcuffing people not posing any immediate threat seems to be common practice in the US, but is very rare here.

Guns and tasers give cops a greater sense of authority and dominance. It’s a cliché, but power does corrupt. I challenge anyone to watch video of the Stanford Prison Experiment and maintain that it’s possible to give person power over another without it being abused:

A bunch of normal young guys were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards in a mock prison. The experiment was due to run for a week, but had to be called off early after the guards became increasingly cruel – with situations eerily similar to those in Abu Ghraib – and the prisoners increasingly accepted the dominance of the guards. Normal people became either sociopaths or cowering messes depending simply on the roles they were assigned.

There are frequent calls to arm the New Zealand police, especially after an officer is killed or injured on the job, and the use of tasers is becoming more common. Needless to say, I think this is a very bad idea. Arming the police might make them slightly more capable of fighting genuine crime, but it’s almost certain to make them into a group to be feared by innocent New Zealanders.

Opposition to an armed police force isn’t based on nostalgia, as some would claim, but an understanding of human psychology. Citizens should not be afraid of their police, and police should definitely not be pointing guns at citizens without a very good reason for doing so.

2 Responses

  1. Let’s hug a crim – it’s what they really need :)

  2. American police forces are “militarized” because their hand was forced. New Zealand does not have a problem with violent crime, America (for a variety of reasons) has a much more violent, heavily armed criminal culture. Police had to take up military style weapons in the ’20’s and ’30’s to combat better armed gangsters and again since the ’70’s to meet new threats from street gangs, terrorist organizations, hostage takers, far right militias, school shooters, etc (we pull out guns all the time because people are far more likely to try killing you in any law enforcement operation). An unarmed police force in the US would be functionally useless and the citizenry would be terrified and up in arms at not being protected by a robust enough force.

    Around a hundred and fifty police officers are killed every year in violent encounters, and many more are injured. This number would be far higher if police were not equipped or trained to use deadly force or less than lethal weapons. For a country of 300 million, mistakes will be made and publicized (and rightly so), but the vast majority of police officers in the US are highly trained professionals who do not run around tasing and shooting people without reason. I’m glad to hear that New Zealand is peaceful enough a place that weapons are unnecessary, but one day spent with our criminals and your cops would be arming themselves to the teeth irrespective of human psychology.

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