‘NO GUNS IN REMOTE AREAS - OR ELSEWHERE’
Queensland Police Service
28 April 2022
Commissioner Carroll, Deputy Commissioner Taylor and senior officers of the Queensland Police Service, thank you for inviting me to Brisbane and allowing me the privilege of addressing you this morning.
I am returning to a place that was once one of my childhood homes. From 1964 to 1966, I lived in Brisbane, caught a daily tram to and from school and frequented the Gabba as often as my father would take me. I have fond memories but that is enough reminiscing from me.
I am here today for a different reason. This is a new era for the QPS. You have challenges ahead, many of which were highlighted in the Greenfield Review. You have to cover a huge area, second only to Western Australia, while at the same time your population is double that of Western Australia and you have the highest growth rate in the country.
Another challenge apparently includes the fact that the QPS is too ‘Southeast Queensland-centric’. I am sure Commissioner Carroll is dealing with that, but it is outside the topic that I wish to discuss.
A feature of the Greenfield review that is a closer to what I propose to address, is the issue of the changes in the nature of policing responsibilities and the types of crime with which you have to deal – more social issues, more family issues, more domestic violence, more child safety concerns, more youth crime and, as the climate becomes more violent and unpredictable, more support for disaster management.
Together, these changes all add up to more interaction with the public in a peaceful and supporting way, rather than in the adversarial or confrontational role that you might adopt when apprehending dangerous criminals. Often this ‘softer’ police work is undertaken in conjunction with government agencies that deal with education, health and indigenous communities.
Much of this work requires the higher skills of engagement, negotiation, anger reduction, instilling calm and providing reassurance. You may not like to hear it, but this statement by a European expert reflects the modern reality:
‘The greatest skill a police officer can have is critical reflection. We need people on the streets who are cognizant of the fact that being a police officer is like being a social worker’.
This changing role for so many ordinary police officers is why I wanted to raise with you the issue of the carriage of firearms. I know firearms are second nature to you but they are not second nature to most members of the public. Australians can consider themselves fortunate that, with one exception, the vast majority of us never see or have to use a firearm. The exception is significant however.
Every day of the week, in many incongruous situations, members of the public are exposed to the intimidating sight of deadly semi-automatic Glock pistols being carried by general duties officers close up and personal. Most people just want to step aside and keep their distance. Here are just a few examples that I have observed in passing:
bicycle patrols by youthful officers in shorts at the Howard Smith Wharves on a Sunday morning when the patrons are having brunch;
queuing for takeaway coffee amid a throng of young mothers and babies at cafes all over Brisbane;
keeping watch at beaches and shopping centres, sporting events and in peaceful crowd control situations;
on horseback at Bondi Beach in Sydney checking for Covid transgressors or nude bathers;
patrolling among the 17 or 18 year-old schoolies on the Gold Coast;
in secondary policing roles, providing support to other services and agencies at a bush fire, a flood or a rescue for lost or injured bushwalkers.
In this address, I am not going to get into the nitty gritty of the statistics, numbers and studies which are available, but I would like to suggest a few general principles that I hope you might take away and think about:
First, not all situations call for the carriage of firearms;
Second, public trust and public interaction would be enhanced if firearms were only carried by general duties officers in threatening or potentially threatening situations, and only when authorised by an appropriate superior officer;
Third, the risk to police and the public would not be compromised. Indeed, the risk would be lessened by the removal of an element that ‘automatically raises the stakes in a dispute’.
Approximately 20 Countries
If that sounds counter-intuitive to you, or even dangerous, please reserve judgment and consider this. There are approximately 20 countries where general duties officers do not routinely carry firearms.
Those countries include England, Scotland and Wales; Norway, Iceland and the Republic of Ireland; New Zealand; three-quarters of the southern Pacific Island nations including Fiji, Tonga, Nauru, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu; one African nation; and surprisingly, one territory of the United States, the US Virgin Islands.
A Yale law professor recently put this helpful perspective about police firearms:
‘I think the better way for police to think about the necessity of arms is not that they are going to places where people might have a gun, but instead, what is the kind of incident that you are going to? And is it the kind of incident where you should reasonably expect to have to use a gun to address it? …Once we start asking those questions and taking them seriously, we will conclude that not every police officer actually needs to be armed all the time.’
The professor added ‘I understand the impulse to carry a firearm but it is kind of like saying that everyone should have to drive a four-wheel drive SUV because it might snow - in a context where most of the time it is not even cold, let alone snowy’.
Medical and psychiatric professionals, and representatives of state agencies concerned with family welfare, child safety or flood evacuations and rescues, with all of whom police increasingly have to interact collaboratively, do not claim that they need to be armed. Why should the police carry firearms in those very same situations?
At Deakin University in Victoria, researchers recently undertook an extensive comparative study of the carriage of firearms by police in England, Wales and New Zealand (where firearms are not routine) and Canada and Australia (where they are). The study threw up these findings:
There was little to support assumptions that routinely arming police officers creates, increases or improves community or officer safety;
By not routinely arming police officers, you can improve safety for the community as a whole and the police as well;
In those countries where police do not routinely carry firearms, police are not at greater risk of non-accidental injury or death;
The idea that ‘police need guns’ to do their jobs and for their own protection appears to have more to do with the fantasies of Hollywood scriptwriters than any real-world evidence;
Firearms are a necessary part of some aspects of policing but the question is whether all police officers need to carry a gun in every situation, on every patrol, every time.
In those countries where police officers are not routinely armed, there are two underlying considerations. One is the nature, function and philosophy of policing. The other is the psychological effect of the carriage of firearms – both for the police officer and the public.
As to the philosophy of policing, the common thread in all countries where police are not routinely armed is a tradition, a common expectation, that the officers will police by consent rather than with the threat of force. That means that police should not exercise power by instilling fear in the population but that they should gain legitimacy and authority by maintaining the respect and approval of the public. As you know, if there is no such respect, police are forced to resort to coercion and repression, which is more time consuming and frankly less effective.
Last year, I spoke to a former senior inspector of the London Metropolitan Police about this. He said simply that they regard the routine carriage of firearms by general duties officers as a ‘barrier to engagement’. That is reflected in the fact that more than 90 percent of London police officers carry out their daily duties without a firearm. And when they have to, they avoid using them. They place a premium on community engagement. According to the American NBC News service, in 2016, the Metropolitan Police carried out 3,300 deployments involving firearms and did not fire a single shot at a suspect.
As to the psychological effect of the carriage of firearms, the long-held belief – now borne out by a growing body of research – is that routinely arming the police with firearms in all situations, all the time, engenders more gun violence than it prevents. Frequently, it makes a bad situation worse and exacerbates existing tensions. It raises the stakes in a dispute.
There are some simple well-established psychological reasons for this. If you think about it, they are probably matters of common sense and common experience. Here is just a summary of the psychological effects on a member of the public confronted by an armed police officer. The presence of the gun:
enhances fear and decreases a sense of safety in a tense situation;
it contributes to a dangerous mindset where the victim’s rational thinking sometimes disappears;
it can increase aggressive thoughts in the victim and perceptions of hostility;
it reduces the likelihood of willing cooperation with the police.
I am sure you have all seen these reactions in practice.
As for the armed police officer, the presence of the gun can make him or her more prone to see danger and threat where they do not exist: a tendency to become just a little paranoid and a little more excited; to imagine that something is a lethal weapon when it is not. And it will not surprise you to learn that tests have shown that the carriage of a gun can also increase levels of adrenalin and testosterone and hence unwanted aggression, especially among younger male officers.
I discussed this with Deputy Commissioner Taylor last night. He told me of one incident – one of many similar such incidents – where a police officer fired 18 times from a six chamber revolver. In other words, he kept pulling the trigger – propelled by fear and adrenalin – long after he had exhausted the rounds in his weapon. I have seen the effect of adrenalin in police officers. We all have. I lost a friend to a police ricochet when one officer fired 17 rounds and another five rounds at a single suspect in the Lindt Cafe siege in Martin Place, Sydney.
Police & Public Safety
I mentioned earlier that by not routinely arming police officers, you can improve safety for the community and the police; and that in those countries where police do not routinely carry firearms, police are not at greater risk of death or injury. A comparison of statistics in different countries bears this out; and an increasing number of research studies supports it.
The broad reasons for these findings are that the effect of not routinely carrying a firearm is, in any given potentially violent conflict, to defuse the situation, to reduce the danger signs, to remove from the equation an element that may lead to violence, and most importantly, to place more emphasis on the need for the exercise of those paramount policing skills that I mentioned earlier – engagement, negotiation, anger reduction, instilling calm and providing reassurance.
It goes without saying that none of what I have said applies to specialist armed units and those armed detectives who put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis.
The sole point of my address is to suggest that you might like to consider whether all general duties officers need to be armed all of the time in all situations. One situation where a different, unarmed approach, might be tried, is among the indigenous communities in our remote areas. Indigenous elders have been calling for ‘No Guns in Remote Areas’ for a long time. Queensland could lead the way, even if the Northern Territory will not. And you could add cafes, shopping centres, sporting events and the host of other incongruous situations that I mentioned earlier.
What I have tried to explain comes down to this underlying principle: The carriage of firearms by general duties officers should not be routine. Decisions to deploy armed police officers or to authorise the use of firearms should, I suggest, be made on operational grounds, by supervising officers, on a case by case basis, depending on the circumstances.
Warrior Cop Phenomenon
A related cultural issue on which I would like to end is recruitment and the unhelpful ‘warrior cop phenomenon’. We have all seen the warrior cop phenomenon at its worst in television footage from the United States.
The public in Australia expect a clear distinction between the military and the police. There is a vital cultural and philosophical difference between the two. The military is trained to use maximum force to kill and destroy the enemy; while the traditional role of the police is to protect the community, serve the public and keep the peace. The tactics, the weapons and the uniforms of the battlefield should have no place among our police forces. Nor should young men and women be recruited for police service if they are shown by psychometric or screening to be unduly interested in being able to carry or discharge firearms. The mission of the police is not to wage war but to protect and safeguard.
Which is why I would like to show you this recruiting video for the New Zealand Police:
Following the recruiting campaign that included that video, the number of women in the New Zealand Police increased by 34 percent, the ranks of indigenous Maori officers grew by 23 percent and the number of police with Asian heritage expanded by 87 percent. And the number of recruits from the least appropriate category of would-be police officers – young white men with military experience – declined. It is something to think about.
Finally, policing in the United States is not all bad. Could I give you a good example. Camden, New Jersey used to be one of America’s most violent cities with the country’s fifth-highest murder rate. In 2012, it decided to reconstitute its police force, stressing community relations and training, particularly in how to calm a volatile situation without using force. Even though salaries and benefits were reduced, the force expanded to almost three times its previous size. And the murder rate decreased by two-thirds. One of the city’s leaders explained:
‘A community that trusts police more, that’s a community more inclined to give information to police about crime, partner with police about quality of life problems, and help the police do what they need to do to keep things safe’.
The funniest thing about the Camden story – and my end note - is the Camden police chief, a man called Joseph Wysocki, who said that he had ‘never done the peace sign ever in his life. Now officers and residents flash the peace sign to each other’! Imagine that in Fortitude Valley or Logan or Aurukun on a Saturday night.
28 April 2022