Attacks on police unacceptable

The recent attacks on police in the North Island have reignited debate about alcohol-fuelled violence, respect for the law, and whether New Zealand police should be armed.

On Christmas Day, two Northland police officers were hospitalised after being attacked by a group of party goers in Dargaville. Several people have appeared in court on charges relating to the incident in which an officer was allegedly kicked, punched and beaten with a baseball bat while he lay unconscious on the ground while the other officer tried to shield his partner. An attempt was allegedly made to use the officer's taser on him. The officers were reportedly responding to a call from church-goers who saw teenagers damaging letterboxes and street signs. The incident came only days after three separate attacks on police in the Waikato.

While the attacks are appalling, and have rightly put the spotlight on anti-social behaviour and attitudes towards police, it is worth remembering New Zealand police generally enjoy a high level of respect from the public - especially compared with many other countries in which police can be viewed as corrupt or brutal. The fact New Zealand police walk the beat, mingle with the public, actively work to foster good relations between themselves and schools and other organisations in the community - and do so unarmed - makes them less threatening and more approachable and contributes to that trust, respect and high public confidence.

But there is no doubt a sector of the community has no respect for authority or the law. And it is clear when alcohol or drugs become part of the mix, judgement often goes out of the window and violent situations ensue.

''Had the people been rational and sober I doubt that this would have happened, quite frankly,'' Whangarei-Kaipara police area commander Inspector Tracy Phillips said of the Dargaville incident. Police Commissioner Peter Marshall said drunken violence against police would not be tolerated: ''It is simply not OK that staff attending such a minor and easily resolvable issue are subject to a serious assault.''

Police are, of course, trained to be prepared for all sorts of incidents and to expect the unexpected. But the level of the violence used against them in these cases - in which they were responding to what appeared to be routine callouts - could not be predicted. Sadly, other emergency services workers have suffered similar incidents while attending callouts - again often by drunken people and often acting as part of a pack mentality. In the wake of such incidents come the inevitable questions about whether police should carry arms - to protect themselves and defuse situations.

Many frontline police have access to firearms in locked safes in their vehicles. There are 17 armed offenders squads, covering all main centres, which respond to and resolve situations in which there is a threat of weapons. Proponents of arming police - notably the Police Association - say it is unacceptable for police to face such risks doing their job and they must have the protection of weapons. Opponents say arming police increases the potential for violent outcomes by spurring an arms race and creating a tenser environment, which actually reduces police and public safety. Certainly, the fact a taser was taken and an attempt made to use it against one of the officers in the Dargaville incident shows how easily the same could happen with a firearm.

There are undoubtedly risks involved in policing and attacks against the police should not be tolerated and the perpetrators brought swiftly to justice. But the causes of such violence - notably society's access to and attitude towards alcohol, and acceptance of and ready recourse to violence - should surely be addressed as part of the mix before any drastic changes are made to the fundamental way in which policing is done in New Zealand.

The public is lucky it has a brave force prepared to take risks to ensure its safety. But it is precisely for the reason of safety, the vision of gun-toting police walking our city streets or driving our rural roads should surely strike fear into the hearts of all New Zealanders.