Eyeing US, New Zealand drops plans for armed police patrols

New Zealand police usually operate without firearms but trialled armed patrols after a lone gunman murdered 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch in March 2019

New Zealand police on Tuesday scrapped plans for armed patrols prompted by last year's Christchurch mosque shootings, after criticism the change would lead to a US-style militarisation of the force.

Police in the South Pacific nation usually operate without firearms but trialled armed patrols after a lone gunman murdered 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch in March 2019.

At the time, police said the worst mass shooting in modern New Zealand history meant "our operating environment has changed" and they needed the ability to rapidly deploy armed officers to high-risk incidents.

The move was met with unease among sections of the New Zealand public unused to seeing armed officers, particularly the Maori and Pacific communities, which argued they were the most likely to come into contact with firearm-toting officers.

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, whose background is Maori, said last week that the patrols made her fearful about the safety of her two sons.

"We only have to look to the United States to see how violent things can get under a militarised police force," she said in an open letter to Commissioner of Police Andrew Coster.

"This is especially so for minorities and communities of colour."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had also said she was "totally opposed to the routine arming of the police", although she argued the patrols were an operational matter for the force.

Coster announced Tuesday that the armed patrols would not continue, saying police had listened to feedback from the community.

"It is clear through the course of the trial that armed response teams do not align well with the style of policing that New Zealanders expect," he said.

Coster said he was committed to police remaining "generally unarmed" and operating with public support.

"How the public feels is important -- we police with the consent of the public, and that is a privilege," he said.

Policing methods worldwide are under the spotlight after African-American man George Floyd was killed while being arrested in the United States, sparking civil rights protests around the globe.

New Zealand tightened its firearms laws after the Christchurch shootings -- including a ban on military-style semi-automatic rifles -- with police overseeing a major gun buyback that saw 56,000 weapons handed in.

Figures vary considerably but gun control advocates put the number of firearms in private hands in the United States at 393 million, or 1.2 for every person, whereas New Zealand has about 1.5 million, or 0.3 per person.

Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant is being held in a high-security jail after pleading guilty to 51 charges of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one of terrorism.

The Australian, a self-avowed white supremacist, is yet to be sentenced because of delays in the court system caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

New Zealand police usually operate without firearms but trialled armed patrols after a lone gunman murdered 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch in March 2019