David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Non-lethal arms proving their worth

More options and better training making guns on hips less likely, say police

The new figures show force was used in just 0.2% of face-to-face encounters between the police and public. Photo / File
The new figures show force was used in just 0.2% of face-to-face encounters between the police and public. Photo / File

A wider range of non-lethal weapons for police make general arming of officers a more distant prospect, says the officer overseeing the use of force.

And police national operations manager Superintendent Barry Taylor says the latest figures on use of non-lethal weapons by police show officers exercising judgment in using the current options available - pepper spray and Tasers.

Police are boosting their non-lethal options with trials for more powerful versions of pepper spray and Tasers taking place over the past few months.

The police have also expanded their arsenal of non-lethal options with the inclusion of a solid sponge round which can be fired up to 35m away, inflicting damage akin to a powerful punch. The round - fired from a gas-powered launcher - is only issued to armed offender squad specialists.

The new figures show force was used in just 0.2 per cent of face-to-face encounters between the police and public.

Tasers have been fired and its electrical charge used on 349 occasions between March 2010 and June 2013. In the 2646 times in which police have had to resort to Tasers, "laser painting" resolved the situation.

The laser to "paint" a subject alerts them to the prospect of being shot with a weapon which uses an electrical charge to disrupt signals between the muscles and the brain.

The period of study has seen the proportion of discharges drop - the voltage is discharged one in every seven times the Taser is presented, a drop on the one-in-six ratio at the outset.

Pepper spray was used more frequently with police resorting to it in 5181 cases over the time period studied.

Mr Taylor credited improved training systems with a new simulator allowing police to practise situations they would face on the street.

"With the introduction of the simulator in training, it's helped with judgment. Using the simulator, officers in training are put into a scenario where they don't know what the outcome is going to be."

He said officers were forced to react - and then grilled afterwards on the reasons for pursuing a course of action. They were compelled to use the least amount of force and had to justify any employed.

"I firmly believe our training is very relevant, very good and heading in the right direction."

He said the sponge rounded out the police's non-lethal arsenal. A trial on a more powerful pepper spray had been completed and was being evaluated. The more powerful Taser was still under trial.

But there were no plans to expand further - and there was no discussion around arming police with pistols. "There is no intention to become a fully armed constabulary," he said.

Lawyer Marie Dyhrberg, who has campaigned against Tasers, said she was "heartened" by the effort shown in gathering and monitoring statistics around Taser use. She said the new figures appeared to reflect a growing police confidence over when the weapons were to be used.

She said it also likely reflected a public awareness around the effect they had.

Ms Dyhrberg said the difference in use of Taser based on ethnic groups suggested police examine the situations in which it is used.

Figures over the three-year study period showed Maori were 35 per cent more likely to face a Taser and Pacific Islanders 64 per cent more likely.

"What I would like to think is the police hierarchy are really seriously looking for options to avoid arming the police with guns."

Police Association president Greg O'Connor said every officer on the street should have a pistol on his hip.

He said he believed Jan Molenaar - who became besieged with weapons in Napier - would not have killed Senior Constable Len Snee if the officers who knocked on his door had been armed as a matter of course.

Mr O'Connor listed other shooting incidents in which police had been wounded or killed as also avoidable.

"It will take one of these incidents where police are forced to watch their fellow officers or a member of the public be shot before we take action."

- NZ Herald

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