Recently Garth McVicar of the Sensible Trust congratulated a police officer for killing a man, saying that it was "one less to clog the prisons".

Many people are currently discussing how to reduce the prison population, particularly among Maori and the mentally ill musters, but nobody with a modicum of decency would think police shooting people is a means to achieve that, even in jest.

It is further evidence that the Sensible Sentencing Trust is increasingly out of step with the country.

Police were quick to distance themselves from McVicar's views, with one cop calling them repugnant, but McVicar was typically unrepentant, claiming that the Sensible Sentencing Trust was "leading the debate on crime and victims in this country" and that if "being provocative sparks that debate, then great."


But we actually need less provocation in crime debates not more, and it's sober analysis that gathers far more important and interesting understandings.

Take for example the idea the New Zealand police should be more readily armed because of the constant dangers they face. Let's look how this stacks up.

Few other lines of work ask their employees to face armed assailants, but certainly such events are rare and only very rarely fatal: a total of 23 police officers have been killed by criminal acts in the entirety of New Zealand's history.

Compared with other industries, policing ranks surprisingly low in measures of danger.

Between 2011 and 2018, only a single police staff member has died while on the clock: an office administrator killed during the Canterbury earthquakes. By comparison, 35 people died in work-related incidents in the forestry sector, which employs just under twice as many people, during the same period.

While forestry has the highest rate of workplace deaths, other major industries such as construction and agriculture are also routinely more lethal than policing. In short, being a cop in New Zealand isn't as dangerous as the popular mind imagines.

This is in line with experiences overseas: one UK study found that the rate of death among police was ten times lower than that of fishermen, and was also lower than farmers, builders, and garbage collectors.

Even in the US, where the proliferation of firearms makes policing more dangerous, official statistics show the same picture: in a list of the most dangerous jobs per hundred thousand, police don't even make it into the top 10, but roofers, truckers, and airline pilots did.

More disturbingly, American police were many times more likely to die by suicide than be killed while working, hinting that the stresses of policing are more complex than physical danger.

This is not to say that policing does not have its dangers. It does, of course. And it's not to say there aren't heroics undertaken by police because there are. It's simply to show that our everyday ideas about crime and justice can be confounded when confronted with data and logic.

We need more of this rather than the fodder too often thrown up by the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

This is not to say the Trust ought now be seen as irrelevant. It's all too easy for some to see it as the voice of yesterday. Let's not forget how successfully they have defined issues of crime and justice because their message has been so simplistic.

McVicar may have miss hit to all but the most unthinking and extreme with his recent comments, but often after high-profile cases that rattle our sensibilities, McVicar's simplicity has proven hypnotic and attractive and appealing to our baser instincts.

Successive governments have been confronted by the outcomes of the hard line 'lock em up' approach: massive expense and little success.

Most notably former PM, Bill English, within National, and more recently Labour's Justice Minister Andrew Little have both grappled with the same issue: how to make sensible changes in a public environment that has been primed to believe that anything other than 'lock 'em up' is soft on crime. This is the legacy of the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

In this sense at least, McVicar's comments are useful in highlighting to the public what the Sensible Sentencing Trust has in many ways always been; an extreme group that ought not be the touchstone for sound justice policy.