On the night of October 3, I killed the lights to my son’s flat. I didn’t want the cops outside to see us.
Me and my “flatties” stood on a mezzanine floor inside and peered through the windows. There were four armed police on the pavement. They were sticker-taping my car and a flatmate’s to the police vehicle. I’d noticed an abandoned Mercedes Benz on the footpath when I’d arrived and wondered who it belonged to. The Kid’s girlfriend had just been stopped at her gate and asked for identification. They wanted to know who was inside our house.
Three curious Māori, actually.
I wasn’t that nervous. After all, we were in a leafy street next to Eden Park, not in Ōtāhuhu. But I wasn’t that keen on the Kid going outside to talk to them, either. That set off alarm bells for me and his girlfriend.
But the Kid is a reporter, a nosey type.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Nothing,” replied the policeman holding the firearm, in the understatement of the year. “Go back inside.”
A quick look on Twitter. No obvious drama unfolding.
In the dark, I sent messages to two former police officers. Cousin Rangi pinged me back. He’d been in the Armed Offenders Squad. “You have a serious crime scene or armed incident nearby.”
You don’t say? Won’t order Uber Eats then.
As the night wore on, I grew less curious. More bored. The flatties were watching another reality show. We kept checking outside. The police were still there. It was bloody cold. As I snuggled into my warm winter sheets, I felt sorry for them.
In the morning, the Merc was gone. So were the police. All that was left were pieces of broken glass on the pavement. Ordinary police in regulation blue uniforms had identified some kind of threat, pulled their firearms out of that locked box they have in their car boot, and tucked them back in there again.
A gentle breeze wafted through the quiet Mt Eden street, like a collective sigh. Our neighbours woke in blissful ignorance. We all did.
Until October 28. That’s when Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced a trial for new Armed Response Teams (ARTs):
ART’s are specialist police personnel who are part of our Armed Offenders Squad (AOS). Our AOS is normally on call 24/7, but for the trial they will be routinely armed, equipped, mobile and ready to support our frontline with any events or incidents that require enhanced tactical capabilities. They are a standard feature across policing jurisdictions internationally.
October 28 — now there’s an auspicious date. On October 28 in 1835, the Declaration of Independence was signed with the Confederation of Northern Tribes. It turned out to be a precursor to the Treaty of Waitangi.
That went well, didn’t it?
When the announcement about the ARTs came out, my thoughts turned to Cousin Rangi, the former cop I’d messaged three weeks earlier.
I had just returned from Timor-Leste. It was the 20th anniversary of the independence referendum in which Timorese had voted to break away from Indonesia. My colleague Wena Harawira and I had followed Cousin Rangi Maniapoto to Dili for my current affairs series.
Rangi was the only Māori among 10 New Zealand cops who volunteered to be part of the unarmed Truce Monitoring Group in East Timor in 1999. Their task was to safeguard the referendum process and UN staff in the absence of UN peacekeepers. The group was selected from members of the Armed Offenders Squad from around the country.
But it was to be a gig without firearms. Yep. They had to leave their hardware at home. Arming them, declared Indonesia, would be an act of war.
Hold that thought.
My dad and his older brother Hitiri (Uncle Tilly) were both veterans of the Korean War (1950–53). Like Cousin Rangi, they went off to war because they thought of it as an adventure. But, unlike the cousin, they had weapons.
Admittedly the cousin is built like the proverbial — he had the same vital statistics as Jonah Lomu — but still. The uncles weren’t impressed with the thought of their nephew going to East Timor without his firearm. After all, the place was going off. Armed Indonesian-backed militia were roaming the streets.
So Dad and Uncle Tilly did for Rangi what was done for them. They sat the cousin down, performed karakia, gave him a pep talk and their mother’s pounamu — something Rangi described as a security nightmare in a poor country.
It was a life-changing experience for the cousin. Challenging. Inspector Superintendant Ray Sutton, the commander of New Zealand’s first police contingent, put it this way:
We had to think on our feet — everything we did was through diplomacy. Probably our best asset was our ability to get on with people.
Rangi and his police mates got through it okay. They came home in September, 1999. But, between 1999–2002, five New Zealand servicemen who were part of the UN multinational force known as INTERFET, lost their lives in Timor-Leste.
Rangi’s return to Timor-Leste showed how emotionally attached he remains to the young country. New Zealand, too, has maintained close ties with Timor-Leste.
While in Dili, Wena and I met Anaru George, a policeman who has spent almost a year in Timor-Leste, sharing New Zealand’s community policing strategy with the locals. He’s a neat fulla and one of three New Zealand cops mentoring Timor-Leste’s relatively young police force. Many of them, like District Police Commander Jorge Monteiro, have even trained at the Police College in Porirua.
Anaru says the Timor-Leste police “look at us as an exemplar of the community policing they want to adopt”.
That means a move away from the gun culture of Indonesia’s military occupation. I mean, this is a country where a grenade launcher was plonked at the entrance of a rural police station. “I thought it was a relic,” sighed Wena. “But no, it was in full working order.”
Timor Leste is facing big challenges. The economy can’t cope with the demand for jobs and the high proportion of youth, most of them politically disengaged from the country their parents established. The average age is 19.7. Seventy percent of Timorese are under 30.
On the upside, many are incredibly fit. I marvelled at a bunch of young men in hoodies, pounding the streets under the tropical sun. Anaru explained the downside, that they were probably members of the outlawed “MAGs”, which stands for martial-arts trained gangs. Some of them carry machetes and happen to be into beheadings. So there’s plenty for the police to deal with.
In Timor-Leste, New Zealand and England are held in high regard for not being routinely and visibly armed. After all, the Timorese didn’t invite the Americans or El Salvadorans in as mentors.
“Back home,” explains Anaru, “we have handcuffs, sprays, tasers, batons. Here, their only choice is a firearm. They are starting to introduce the other equipment now, so hopefully that will negate the need to use a firearm. They’re definitely looking at services just like ours that are not routinely armed.”
Newsflash. Now we are. Routinely armed.
The police minister Stuart Nash can distance himself all he likes by insisting that arming the police is an “operational matter”. But it’s political as hell, and happening under his watch and a Labour-led coalition government. It just beggars belief.
The police say it’s all about protecting the public — and themselves — against “significant risk.” The justification for the new teams has morphed from something to do with the terrorist attack on the Christchurch mosque, to patrolling places where firearms are more prevalent, to stopping dodgy but unarmed types as a “preventative” measure. Talk about a moving feast.
When our rate of gun violence is one of the lowest in the world and when three-quarters of those who die by firearms are suicides, the justifications are somewhat flimsy.
My own non-scientific survey suggests that most brown folk feel more nervous than safe. And rightly so. There’s a litany of examples, including admissions by the police themselves, of unconscious bias. Or racism, as we called it in the good old days.
Māori have long recognised the impact of plonking a bunch of police into a particular part of town. Māori are more likely to be patrolled and stopped and — even when police are exercising their discretion — more likely to be arrested and funnelled through the criminal justice system, where we’re more likely to be incarcerated.
We’ve been rabbiting on about this since 1986 and Moana Jackson’s report into Māori and the Criminal Justice System. There have been conferences, hui, and relationships built over the years to address instititutional racism. Much work with Māori leaders led to the 2012 Turning the Tides strategy. Yet hard on the heels of the announcement of the ARTs, a refreshed version of the Tides strategy was released.
Did Māori who fed into both versions of Turning the Tide sign off on the ARTs? Oh hang on, let me check.
That would be a no.
“The Māori Forum did not sign off on the Armed Response issue,” Iritana Tawhiwhirangi told me. “We were simply briefed by the commissioner on the concern around the matter.”
I’d describe that as a betrayal of trust at the highest level. So why would there be any trust at all on the streets between Māori and the police? Why wouldn’t more visible weapons carried by hyper-vigilant cops trigger a more hostile reponse from people already on the edge?
Psychologists talk of the “weapons effect”, where the mere presence of lethal and non-lethal weapons is said to make both sides more aggressive. Is it a leap to suggest that more people are likely to be shot — and that a disproportionate number of them are likely to be brown?
What do we do if the ARTs do end up “presenting” their arms more often? Give more police more arms? Pimp their firearms so they are more hardcore? Haul a grenade launcher out? Sure, it’s a six month trial. But who will be assessing its success and what will the criteria be?
It’s just more of everything.
On October 3 on the streets of Mt Eden, police did what they were trained to do. In Timor-Leste, there are three New Zealand cops teaching locals about the basis of community policing: VIP. Visibility. Integration. Professionalism.
“It’s all about working alongside the district commanders, to build that trust and confidence within their communities,” says Anaru. “And that’s going to do a world of good for all of them.”
The Indonesians suggested back in 1999 that peacekeepers bearing arms could be interpreted as a call to war. Let’s just think about that for a moment.
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