Darroch Ball: Why we need a new law to protect our first responders

Opinion 15/03/2020

By Darroch Ball MP, NZ First Spokesperson for Law & Order.

There are very few professions where, every day, one puts themselves directly in harm’s way for the sole purpose of serving and protecting others.

There is a proposed new law that concerns a group of people who fall into that category – our First Responders – our Police, Paramedics and Corrections Officers. Their day job is focussed on protecting us – it is clear we need to do a better job at protecting them.

The ‘First Responders and Corrections Officers Bill’ is currently being considered by the justice select committee and heard submissions from the public this week. It is proposing a minimum mandatory six month prison sentence for serious assaults on our first responders or corrections officers.

Many of the submissions heard focused on the number of months in prison or the nature of a mandatory sentence. But the intention of this Bill goes further than a mandatory minimum sentence – it aims to send a message that it is wrong for our First Responders to expect abuse or assaults when they serve and protect us.

There was a time when no one would dare lay a finger on a police officer - not because of better education, living standards, or less poverty – but because there was a sense of respect felt for them.

It seems that respect has vanished. Over the past few decades there has been a brewing culture of contempt for these people in uniform.

It is clear we need to do a better job at protecting them.

When they perform their duties they have an expectation that abuse is “just part of the job”. Instead of respect, their uniforms are now treated as targets by these people who harbour contempt for our officers and our system.

Emphasis on the, “our”. After all they protect and serve society on our behalf, so any attack on our first responders is an attack on us.

We heard opposing views on aspects of the Bill from a wide range of submitters. What we need to challenge people to do is to listen carefully to those who are affected directly by this piece of legislation: our first responders.

It’s our duty as parliamentarians to listen to those voices.

Some submitters against this Bill stated that the offender’s personal circumstances needed to be taken into account. These include issues like lack of education, poverty, personal family history or upbringing.

But it’s a guarantee the female paramedic from Warkworth brutally assaulted and left unconscious wasn’t thinking at that moment about her attacker’s upbringing. Nor was the coward when he kicked her in the face.

This Bill is not going to stop every assault on First Responders, nor was that the intent. What it does do is to send a message that we value the safety of these personnel and will no longer put up with this culture of violence against them.

This problem has gone on for too long and has been seen as the norm that many people today are surprised to hear how often police officers are assaulted per year. It also surprises many that our paramedics are routinely abused and assaulted every single week.

Our Corrections Officers are now targets in our prisons. These are prisons where we detain violent criminals to keep away our society, but expect our Correction Officers to deal with them day in and day out.

This Bill is fundamentally about consistency and certainty. Consistency in dealing with offenders and creating certainty for our police, paramedics, and corrections officers that if they are assaulted will ensure justice is served.

This Bill is not going to stop every assault on First Responders.

Right now sentences are not consistent. In December last year, a man head-butted a stranger over a parking dispute and resulted in the victim’s death.

The thug who killed him had been previously convicted of “injuring with intent” after beating a man unconscious. He was charged and found guilty of “injuring with intent” – and received a sentence of 12 months supervision.

It was during that 12 months supervision that he head-butted the stranger at the super market and killed him. We challenge any member of the justice committee to say that he shouldn’t have gone to jail.

Clearly, our current system failed.

Most importantly, this Bill is not reinventing the wheel. Several Australian states and the UK, have similar provisions for a minimum mandatory prison sentence for attacking first responders.

This law works because it lands on the side of the victim and not on the side of the offender.

The committee needs to do just one thing to understand the importance of this Bill: listen to the stakeholders. They need to take a look at the written submissions and oral submissions from the Police Association, St John and the Corrections Association.

Their representatives strongly favour the Bill. The skin here is with the Police officer who got head-butted last week and the rest who constantly face similar threats.

With the female paramedic from Warkworth whose life has changed forever, and her colleagues who have also experience violence.

With the Correction Officer who was knocked out by a violent prisoner, and his colleagues who routinely experience violence.

The skin in the game is with them - our First Responders and Corrections Officers.

We need a change from our current “offender-centric” justice system to a “victim-centric” justice system. We need this legislation which its sole purpose is to protect the victims of violent assaults.

We need to be on the side of our First Responders and Corrections Officers.

We need to protect our protectors.

Darroch Ball is NZ First Spokesperson for Law & Order.