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An armed police officer outside Otahuhu College on May 11, 2018 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
An armed police officer outside Otahuhu College on May 11, 2018 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

SocietyNovember 18, 2019

For people living with mental illness, the arming of New Zealand police is a disaster

An armed police officer outside Otahuhu College on May 11, 2018 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
An armed police officer outside Otahuhu College on May 11, 2018 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Armed police represent a serious cause for concern, especially for the most vulnerable, writes the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation.

The Mental Health Foundation has publicly condemned the police trial of special armed response teams patrolling three districts around New Zealand. We’re extremely worried these trials will result in death or serious injury for people going through mental health crises, and we have good reason for concern. 

Imagine someone on the worst day of their lives. They’re scared, out of control. Their mind is racing, they’re behaving erratically – other people are worried. Maybe they’re experiencing psychosis. Maybe they’re feeling suicidal. They need help to stay safe. They ask for help (or someone else asks for help for them). 

The police show up (because the mental health crisis team is too busy, or they’re not an existing patient, or one of any number of other reasons crisis teams give when declining to respond to people in mental health crisis) with an armed response team.

The person in crisis knows the police are armed. How do you think they feel? Reassured no one wants to hurt them? Glad to see the police? Confident police were there to help them, not harm them? 

Probably not. 

The interaction isn’t going to go well. It will probably delay their recovery, cause further distress and make them feel less safe than ever. 

This isn’t speculation or conjecture. It’s what we’ve heard from people who have been in that exact position – faced with armed officers while in the middle of a severe mental health crisis. They report being further traumatised, more mistrustful that the mental health system could help them and feeling less hopeful they can recover. 

How many more people will have stories like that to share if the day comes when these trials are made permanent around New Zealand? 

Armed police during a raid on the Headhunters gang in 2015 (Photo: Getty Images)

The risk of harm is greater for Māori and Pasifika. While police have acknowledged racial bias, this acknowledgement has had no impact on the number of Māori or Pasifika being arrested or approached by police, and two-thirds of individuals shot by police in the last decade were Māori or Pasifika. If the person going through a mental health crisis is Māori or Pasifika, they are and will continue to be at far greater risk of harm from police. 

Myths about people who live with mental illness continue to thrive in Aotearoa. Many people still believe, without evidence, that people who experience mental illness are violent, dangerous and unpredictable. The police are not immune to these attitudes; these ingrained prejudices help to drive disproportionate use of force against people in mental health crises.

Police have no real justification for introducing this trial. Their own statistics show a decrease in assaults on police using firearms, and international evidence shows everyone is safer when there are fewer firearms – including police firearms – in the community. 

International evidence gives us enough reason for extreme concern that people who are mentally unwell have a far greater risk of being killed by armed law enforcement officers than others. In the US, the risk of being killed while being approached or stopped by law enforcement is 16 times higher for individuals with “untreated serious mental illness” than for other members of the community. At least one in four fatal law enforcement encounters involve an individual with serious mental illness – some studies have found as many as half of all law enforcement homicides result in the death of someone who lives with serious mental illness. 

We can’t keep saying we want to normalise mental health, want people to share their experiences and ask for help while implementing policies and practises that undermine their safety and their human rights. 

More than a decade ago, when police trialled the use of Tasers, the Mental Health Foundation warned their introduction would result in the overuse of Tasers against people in mental health crises. We were assured it would not, that steps were in place to prevent this from happening.

We are not happy to say that we were right, and that every year since they were introduced Tasers have been much more likely to be used against people experiencing mental illness than those who are not. 

If this trial continues, and if it is implemented around New Zealand, the reality is that more people will be shot. Those people are more likely to be mentally distressed and more likely to be Māori or Pasifika. Tasers are bad enough, we can’t afford to introduce firearms.  

We were right about Tasers, and we’re right about this now. An armed police force patrolling communities should never become a reality in New Zealand. 

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