Speech notes to National Party Conference

  • Judith Collins

Good morning.

It's great to see you all here today.

Earlier this week I had one of those phone calls that every Police Minister dreads.

Two police officers had been shot and a Police dog killed during what had started out as a routine check on a Christchurch address.

After smelling cannabis, the officers went in to investigate. They were greeted by man armed with a rifle.

What happened next, I believe, would defy the comprehension of most New Zealanders.

Senior Constable Bruce Lamb, a 32 year veteran of the police and a highly respected dog handler, was hit in the chin by a bullet.

It shattered his jaw in four places and knocked out several teeth. He required extensive surgery to fit titanium plates in his jaw.

Constable Mitchel Alatalo was hit in the thigh by a bullet. His doctors said the bullet missed his femoral artery by a whisker.

Both officers are extremely lucky to be alive. I can't tell you the relief I felt when I was informed that both were going to be OK.

Our Police put themselves in situations where others fear to go, and put the safety of the community, of people they have never met, before their own.

The world of a Police officer can be unpredictable. A day that starts quietly and routinely can, in a heartbeat and without warning, turn to violence and danger.

Every member of the New Zealand Police, know the risks they face as they step outside their door each day.

They plan, they prepare, they call on their training and their experience. They are well equipped and supported. But sometimes, none of that matters.

Criminals have always had weapons. What we are now seeing is an increased willingness to use them against Police.

These people represent a hard-core element that has no respect for police, the law or the community.

In September 2008 Sergeant Don Wilkinson was shot dead during a covert drugs operation in Mangere.

In May 2009, Senior Constable Len Snee was killed and his colleagues Constable Bruce Miller and Constable Grant Diver received serious gunshot injuries during a seemingly routine house call in Napier.

This week's incident has brought renewed calls for us to routinely arm our Police.

By that I mean every frontline officer carrying a weapon at all times.

While the threat to our officers has undoubtedly increased, I don't believe that New Zealand is yet ready to see Police carrying pistols fulltime.

I think that most New Zealanders still take pride that the law can be maintained in this country without the overt expression of force that a routinely armed Police service would create.

The most valuable asset a Police service can have is the respect and goodwill of the public.

Our Police enjoy a huge amount of respect, and I believe this is due to the style of Policing we have in New Zealand.

People see police as helpers rather than enforcers. This perception is particularly important at a time when Police are working more closely with communities to prevent crime than ever before.

To routinely arm our Police could change this relationship forever. It would represent a significant cultural shift and I believe our society would be all the poorer for it.

The willingness by hard-core criminals to use firearms against our Police certainly tests this belief.

For now, I believe a better approach is to ensure Police have firearms nearby if they need them.

Already, frontline Police can count on an armed response being just a few minutes away. When Constable Jeremy Snow was shot in Auckland in December, armed back-up was on the scene in less than two minutes.

The Police Commissioner is currently looking at how firearms can be made more accessible to more officers more quickly.

At present, Police district commanders can authorise firearms to be routinely carried in cars, but this is generally done only for Sergeants and Senior Sergeants, dog and CIB patrols, and first-response units.

The review might expand that to include every frontline car, including those on general patrols or going to routine inquiries.

The Commissioner will be reporting back to me before Christmas. The temptation after officers have been shot is to immediately push through a new and reactive Policy.

I believe that getting this important policy right is more important than moving with undue haste.

We have also equipped frontline staff with Tasers.

Since December 2008, Tasers have saved officers from injury literally dozens of times.

Most of the time it's the threat of the Taser that does the job.  Just unholstering the Taser or pointing the targeting laser at an offender is enough to quieten them down.

Tasers have only been discharged 29 times and in none of those cases was there any serious direct injury from the Taser.

Tasers will be available to frontline police on a case-by-case basis. So far 648 Tasers have been deployed around the country.

Officers receive extensive training in how to use them safely and appropriately. About 3,500 officers will be trained to use them by the end of the year.

But Tasers and easier access to firearms don't get to the root of the problem of what is causing these armed confrontations.

What Senior Constable Lamb and Constable Alatalo stumbled across in Christchurch this week represents the malignant threat that is becoming far too common throughout the country.

Making and selling drugs such as methamphetamine and cannabis is an enormous industry in this country. In 2008 the methamphetamine trade along was estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars at a street level.

Most of the time, these drugs are produced by people linked to criminal gangs at ordinary houses on ordinary streets.

These suburban drug factories are often protected by loaded firearms. The threat is from other criminals who would rather steal someone else's drugs than go to the trouble of making their own.

The danger is when a Police officer or an innocent member of the public finds themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, as is what happened in Christchurch with near tragic results this week.

In 2008, Police identified that 78 percent of clandestine laboratories were connected to organised criminal groups. Weapons were found in just over one third of the clandestine laboratories detected.

Tackling the drugs trade in the country was one of National's top law and order priorities because we recognised how it was linked to so much criminal offending in New Zealand.

Our policy pulled no punches.

While the last government was very concerned about upholding the rights of criminals, we were focused on making our communities safer.

In other words, doing what works.

We created a dedicated anti-drug Customs taskforce that would work closely with police to stop drugs and precursors coming into the country.

We untied the hands of Police to go after the gangs that are responsible for much of the methamphetamine in our community.

We will be restricting access to the precursor chemicals gangs use to make methamphetamine.

We introduced legislation that gave Police the power to target the proceeds of crime, and formed a new, specialist Police unit to track down and seize ill-gotten gains.

The result of these steps has been a large dent in the supply of methamphetamine and a drugs business that is much riskier and less profitable for criminals.

Around 23kg of methamphetamine was seized in New Zealand in the first five months of the year.

This included around 5kg seized during a drug operation in Auckland on Friday.

The haul so far this year is well in excess of the 17.9kg seized for the whole of 2009.

Other seizures included 8.2kg  from a group of six Taiwanese nationals arriving at Auckland International Airport,  3.9kg from two Chinese nationals arriving in the country and 1.5kg concealed within electrical goods that had been sent from Hong Kong.

This clearly shows how effective the combined Police and Customs operations have been.

The Police Asset Recovery Unit, formed in December last year to locate and seize the profits of crime, has investigated 140 cases to date with referrals from across Police and from other Government agencies.

A total of $19.7 million worth of assets now in the custody of the Official Assignee awaiting further orders.

A further estimated $7.8 million worth of assets have been seized by the Police under other legislation. These are pending restraint action.

The total value of assets investigated since the introduction of the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009 is an estimated $50.9 million.

Assets seized include cash and bank accounts worth an estimated $13.5 million, residential and commercial properties worth a total of $15.5 million, lifestyle blocks and farms worth $8.4 million, and motor vehicles worth $600,000.

Already police are receiving feedback that criminals are too afraid to spend their profits because they know there is a good chance it will end up in the hands of the Crown.

These successes are proof that our policy is having an impact on the drugs trade and the criminal gangs that run it.

We don't want any more methamphetamine being sold in our communities, destroying lives and families along the way.

We don't want drug factories guarded by guns in our neighbourhoods.

We don't want gangs becoming so wealthy that there is the potential for corruption of the officials we trust.

We don't want any more good police officers gunned down while serving and protecting the public.

What we do want are safe communities, where people can walk the streets without the threat of violence or intimidation, where they can sleep at night knowing their families are safe in their homes, where there is respect for property, people and the law.

Since becoming the Government we have put the interests of victims of crime, the security of law-abiding citizens and our law enforcement officers, and a commitment to a better, safer New Zealand at the heart of the Government's priorities on law and order.

My pledge to you is that this will continue to be our focus in the years ahead.

Thank you, again, for the opportunity to talk to you today.