We are fortunate in Aotearoa/NZ that most people do not own firearms; and Police do not routinely carry arms on their person, negotiate before any exercise of force, and are trusted and not feared by most people.
Despite this, we have over the years seen incidents where a distressed person has a weapon, cannot be negotiated with, and poses an immediate threat to others and so police are forced to use firearms.
• Police shoot machete-wielding man dead in Papatoetoe, Auckland, overnight
• Police name man shot dead in Papatoetoe
• Fatal police shooting: Officers kill Tauranga double murder suspect
• Machete-wielding man Hitesh Lal called 111, threatened to 'kill people' before he was shot dead by police
This is a terrible choice for any police officer to face, and one can only imagine the
personal impact of this. In the most recent such incident in South Auckland, a man armed with a machete had destroyed property, threatened a family, but had called 111 saying he intended to "kill people" – so at some level was "crying out for help".
In many of these instances, and reflecting our low levels of firearm ownership, they are most often carrying weapons that can only inflict harm in close quarters, so what other options might lead to a better outcome?
It is helpful to understand what could drive someone to such an extreme act. Some or all of the following factors are most common: Early life adversity, resulting in learning "violence as a normal behavior", and/or not learning healthy ways of coping with stress, including relationship stress/conflict; Current relationship stress, breakup, or loss; Ongoing drug/alcohol use as "self - medication"; In the face of the previous, struggling with depression; A "triggering event" such as an argument with a loved one, loss of job etc.; Drug/alcohol intoxication at the time, resulting in loss of usual inhibitions and control of behaviour; and, in that moment, feeling an overwhelming mix of rage and wanting to die.
A co-author of this article, Rob Mokaraka, faced just this situation of extreme distress as a result of some of these factors in 2009.
"For me, waves of shame, guilt and failure were arising from what the doctors later said was caused by my undiagnosed depression, which was a result of my unresolved trauma.
"The moment the bullet hit my chest, the pain was terrifyingly overwhelming. I realised I had made a terrible mistake. I wished I had been brave enough to talk to someone.
"The searing pain of the bullet that ripped through my internal organs superseded my troubled mind."
For anyone who is driven to this point in their life, it is a crisis, and crisis is a time of both danger but also opportunity for change. Rob survived this ordeal, and out of the crisis began a journey of recovery, which for him has included using his own experience to encourage others to reach out for help if they need it.
The current Covid-19 crisis has forced changes, some of which we will be better off for.
Likewise if we can get anyone who has reached this level of distress and crisis in their life through that one terrible night safely, it has the potential to be a turning point in their life.
What then might be the solution?
It is easy to both under-estimate the complexity of what it takes to be a good police officer, and to forget that, like us, police are human. Police are too often called on to be the front line of mental health response, without having the training or experience needed. Despite this, they often do an extraordinary job of de-escalating distress and connecting people to mental health crisis services.
However, in the thankfully rare situation of such extreme distress, we need a different response. Internationally some countries have placed mental health crisis workers, trained in de-escalation of extreme distress, in frontline police units, with good outcomes.
In the mental health, addiction, and family violence fields, the power of a peer – "someone who has walked in my shoes" - to engage and de-escalate has been shown to be effective. We have in Aotearoa/NZ a national network of men who are recovering from their own histories of being caught in a cycle of intergenerational "normalised" violence. These men are hugely successful in engaging and supporting other men along that journey of recovery.
Perhaps we could test partnering police with such an organisation, so that a "peer" experienced in engaging with and de-escalating men who are in such states of distress could be available to support a team response.
Finally, as a last resort, the authors have no expertise in policing, but could we not equip our front line officers with non-lethal means of containment such as rubber bullets or some other alternative?
• David Codyre is a clinical lead for mental health and consultant psychiatrist. Rob Mokaraka is an actor who confronted police in an attempt to self-harm, and was shot.
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.