Armed police to patrol three centres in new trial

Armed police will routinely patrol three centres as part of a trial, Police Commissioner Mike Bush has announced.

Armed Response Teams (ARTs) are sets of three Armed Offenders Squad members with a specialist vehicle equipped with tactical options.

As part of a trial, they will operate seven days a week for six months in Counties Manukau, Waikato and Canterbury. 

Their focus will be on responding "to events where significant risk is posed to the public or staff and supporting the execution of pre-planned and high-risk search warrants, high-profile public events and prevention activities".

Bush said these teams will support current officers' tactical capabilities. Currently, the Armed Offenders Squad is on call 24/7, but for the trial they will be routinely armed, mobile and ready to support the frontline.

"The Police's mission is that New Zealand is the safest country.  Following the events of March 15 in Christchurch, our operating environment has changed," Bush said in a statement.

"The threat level remains at medium and we are continuously reviewing our tools, training, and capabilities we use to provide policing services to ensure we remain fit for purpose."

Police said the trial hadn't been prompted by any immediate threat.

The three centres the trial will take place in were selected as they are the areas where the highest number of firearms are seized, located and surrendered, and have the largest Armed Offenders Squad groups to support the trial.

Chris Cahill, the president of the Police Association, said his organisation supported the trial.

"We have been calling for some time for a change in the way police respond to firearm issues. The threat of firearms in the hands of criminals has been continuing to grow in New Zealand," he told MagicTalk.

He said a survey by the Police Association found that 61 percent of the public were in favour of the general arming of police, while the majority of frontline officers also welcomed arming.

Members of the new armed team will wear the standard blue police uniform, but with new "body armour system".

Cahill said how the officers appeared on the street was important. 

"I think it is important to get that balance right between having armed police out there to protect and make the public feel safe, but not scaring them. 

"We sorta learned after Christchurch that officers with a Glock on their hip, the public sorta accepts pretty quickly. Seeing officers with the big M4 semi-automatics can be seen as pretty threatening."

Police Minister Stuart Nash says the trial will be closely monitored, but does not mean police in general will be moving to routine arming. 

"The safety of Police officers and members of the public are given utmost priority when responding to dangerous incidents. It is also important that frontline Police have access to the tools and resources they need in high-risk or critical events," Nash said. 

"Nationally more than 1400 firearms have been seized from offenders since March. Police turn up to some callouts with no knowledge of what they are walking into. Every month Police turn up to 200 incidents where a firearm is involved. Police intelligence indicates most illegally-held firearms are stolen from legitimate owners.

"Police need to be able to respond in a way that keeps themselves and the public safe. They will carry standard Glock pistols and Tasers and the standard Bushmaster rifles will be in lock boxes in vehicles."

In June, Bush announced the rollout of 179 extra tactical sets - including pistols and rifles - 517 extra Tasers and 387 extra weapons for specialist groups.