Kerre McIvor: Police Minister Poto Williams cant pick and choose who she represents

OPINION:

Poto Williams didn’t want to be the police minister.

When she was appointed New Zealand’s first female Pasifika police minister late last year, she said it was a role she had not sought. However, she said on reflection, her background in family harm prevention made her a good candidate.

That lukewarm response to the role was evident this week when she was asked whether she thought police should be routinely armed. It’s a fair question given the prevalence of guns in the community being carried by criminals who aren’t afraid to use them.

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a Hamilton police officer injured by a firearm during a routine traffic stop. Members of the public had a gun held to their heads while in traffic, and police in Hamilton and Auckland were confronted with men pointing weapons at them – all while the trial of man who has admitted killing Constable Matthew Hunt but has denied attempted murder of another officer during a routine traffic stop is being played out in court.

It must be a terrifying time for the families of police officers. It’s always been a dangerous job but the violence and unpredictability of offenders has really ramped up over the past few years. And I’m not being emotive or depending on unreliable memory when I say that – figures show the rate of gun crime increased during 2018 and 2019. We can only imagine what the stats are going to look like for this year.

But when asked whether police have access to firearms in the face of increasing violence against them, Poto Williams was adamant. Police should not be routinely armed and there would not a return of the ARTs (Armed Response Teams, which National trialled amid some controversy in 2019).

Why? Because, she said, she had listened to overwhelming feedback from the Māori, Pacific Island and South Auckland communities who didn’t want it. They were telling her “loud and clear” that the general arming of police and the ARTs were a real concern to them and had been distressed to learn armed police were routinely patrolling their streets.

Williams said statistics showed Māori and Pacific populations were stopped more, charged more and arrested more (she did not say whether they offended more) and for those communities having permanently armed police was a “real difficulty for them”.

Williams also acknowledged the Māori and Pacific communities’ interactions with police over the years “had not been that great”. Police data shows Māori are nearly eight times more likely than Pākehā to be on the receiving end of police force. The data does not tell us whether that police force was justified or not.

On a number of occasions, during her interview on Newstalk ZB and in subsequent interviews, Williams stressed that she was representing the Māori and Pacific communities of South Auckland – they were her people.

Which would be fine if she was Minister for Pacific Peoples. Or the MP for Manurewa or Māngere. But she’s not. She’s MP for Christchurch East. Of course, her role will be informed by her experiences as a New Zealander of Cook Island descent, and as a woman and in her previous work outside government. But she can’t just pick and choose who she represents as it suits her.

First and foremost, I would have thought a police minister would have the interests of police at heart. Then New Zealanders as a whole. Not just the sectors most dear to her heart.

There must be nothing more disillusioning than hearing your minister rabbiting on about unconscious bias and systemic racism as you put on your uniform and head out to work, not knowing with 100 per cent certainty that you’ll make it home that night.

Going back to those stats from 2019, police were faced with more than 3500 firearms incidents. In response, they presented their own arms just 305 times. Hardly the stuff of good ol’ boys and girls, trigger happy and blinkered.

There are improvements to be made, certainly.I would love to see a highly skilled mental health team accompany police to armed stand-offs given that many of the situations our police have to deal with are not criminal matters, but mental health situations.

I would also love more of the public to know about the incredible work our police do behind the scenes, often in their own time and on their own coin, trying to prevent crime occurring.

The men and women I’ve spoken to, from chief supers to constables, somehow, magically, have kept their faith in humanity and believe they are there to serve their community. They have got our backs.

If only we, and especially their minister, offered them the same respect and protection.

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