Trial suggests Tactical Response Model will make police safer, but what about the community?

New Zealand Security Magazine - April-May 2023

Tactical Response Model
Police officers receive Frontline Skills Enhancement Course (FSEC) training, part of the TRM. Image: NZ Police.

A recent evaluation by the Evidence Based Policing Centre of New Zealand Police’s Tactical Response Model fails to identify evidence that TRM will make communities safer, writes Nicholas Dynon.

In a 29 March media release, newly warranted police minister Ginny Andersen announced the launch of the Tactical Response Model, stating that “the Government is backing Police and making communities safer with the roll-out of state-of-the-art tools and training to frontline staff.”

“The Tactical Response Model being launched today will make it safer for Police on the job by applying smart Policing to anticipate dangerous and high-risk situations before they arise,” she said.

“The model uses Police intelligence to risk-assess situations early, builds decision-making and critical thinking skills while under pressure and backs that with Offender Prevention Teams and two-person Tactical Dog Teams coming on board in each district.”

An ART redux?

The TRM, states the minister aims to provide front-line Police a “higher level of protection without changing New Zealand’s community policing approach – which we strongly believe is effective and appropriate for our country.”

By mentioning the community policing approach and ‘appropriateness’ of TRM, it’s likely the minister was making implied reference to the Armed Response Team (ART) pilot that ran from October 2019 until it was halted by incoming Police Commissioner Andrew Coster in April 2020. The highly armed – and armoured – ARTs were seen as not in keeping with the aesthetics of New Zealand’s Peelian philosophy of policing by consent.

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Of the ill-fated ART trial, New Zealand Police Association President Chris Cahill said at the time that the “initiative was hobbled from the start because of a lack of consultation on the concept of ARTs, and no clear communication on the aim of the trials.”

“If you don’t build solid foundations on issues as potentially volatile as armed police, you can’t possibly hope to take the community with you, and that is exactly what has happened in this case,” wrote Mr Cahill.

In his remarks, the NZPA president pointed to mis-steps, including ART vehicles “that looked pretty sinister in comparison to the police vehicles we are familiar with, despite the fact that those everyday police patrol cars have Glock pistols and Bushmaster rifles in them for officers to use when needed.”

Police interest in the ART model found renewed legitimacy after Constable Matthew Hunt was shot dead and his partner Constable David Goldfinch was shot and seriously injured following a vehicle stop in the Auckland suburb of Massey on 19 June 2020.

This, according to the November 2022 Tactical Response Model: Evaluation Report by the Evidence Based Policing Centre (a joint partnership between NZ Police, the University of Waikato, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), and Vodafone New Zealand) resulted in feedback from hundreds of frontline police officers suggesting “that ART needed to be reinstated”.

This time, however, it appears that NZ Police has taken a more careful approach incorporating community consultation, including with Māori, Pacific and ethnic community leaders, and an evaluation of a four police district (Northland, Counties Manukau, Waikato, and Central) trial of the TRM conducted by the Evidence Based Policing Centre with support from the University of Waikato and Victoria University Wellington.

Among other things, in response to the lessons learned from the ART trial, the TRM envisages specialist tactical teams wearing blue uniforms and driving standard Police vehicles, and that these teams neither self-deploy nor are routinely armed in the course of their normal duties.

TRM objectives

According to the Evidence Based Policing Centre’s Tactical Response Model: Evaluation Report, the Tactical Response Model (TRM) intends to achieve the following three outcomes:

  1. Frontline staff [police officers] feel safer and more confident in their day-to-day duties;
  2. Frontline staff are safer in their day-to-day duties; and
  3. Communities are safer.

These outcomes, states the report, would be achieved through three ‘pillars’ of the model:

  1. four days of additional tactical safety training
  2. the creation of tactical dog teams (TDTs) and tactical prevention teams (TPTs), and
  3. new risk-based deployment processes (Tactical Intelligence, Tasking and Coordination, 24/7 DCC, coverage and double crewing after 9pm).

The Evidence Based Policing Centre (EBPC) was tasked with providing an independent evaluation of the TRM trial, which ran from 01 January to 30 June 2022. The evaluation focused on quantifying the actual and perceived impact of the TRM on frontline safety and assessing the implementation of the TRM within the districts in which it was being trialed.

Included within the evaluation was an assessment of the trial against the above-listed three intended outcomes of TRM: (i) frontline staff feel safer and more confident in their day-to-day duties; (ii) frontline staff are safer in their day-to-day duties; and (iii) communities are safer.

According to Minister Andersen, the trial delivered “impressive results” and elicited “strong support from frontline staff.” So, how exactly did the trial perform against each of its three intended outcomes?

(i) Officer feelings of safety

In terms of the outcome “frontline staff feel safer and more confident in their day-to-day duties”, the report found that increased feelings of safety were most clearly seen in qualitative data, “but that increases were not seen so strongly in quantitative data.”

Based on baseline survey responses of 2,158 frontline staff and follow-up survey responses of 2,035 frontline staff, positive effects were seen for some safety and confidence measures, however, most survey responses showed no observable effect of the TRM in the four police districts taking part in the trial.

Despite the lack of objective supporting evidence, however, the report stated that “there are indications the TRM will move staff to a greater sense of safety when the model is more widely embedded and its intent better understood.”

(ii) Officer safety

In terms of the outcome “frontline staff are safer in their day-to-day duties”, the report found green shoots of potential success, but no conclusive evidence of it.

Among the positive signs, it noted that there was not a single use of a firearm at police offence in any participating district during the TRM trial. It also found that TRM “through TPTs and risk deployment pathways, has likely reduced the rare but serious events of firearms use at police.”

“Despite there being some very positive impacts and outcomes attributable to the individual pillars, it is too early to interpret most system level outcome results regarding the safety of frontline,” stated the report.

(iii) Community safety

In terms of the outcome “communities are safer”, the report found “insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions about the TRM’s effects on community safety and feelings of safety.”

In particular, it found:

In terms of community safety outcomes, firearms victimisation results were mixed, depending on victimisation type. Gang tensions and violence escalated during the PoC period, resulting in a spike in firearms victimisations in Counties Manukau. Because the TRM is not aimed specifically at reducing gang conflict, a short-term spike in these does not imply the TRM is not working. Consistent with a lack of impacts with regard to methamphetamine seizure, there was no apparent effect of the TRM on methamphetamine consumption, based on wastewater results. However, this result is to be expected given the short time frame of the evaluation period. Effects of the TRM on these measures are likely to take considerable time to come to be seen in the data.

On the positive side, the report noted a lack of evidence of any unintended consequences, and several indicators of “potential emerging benefits to the community”, which included fewer complaints about use of force by Police; fewer AOS deployments (which may have a positive impact on community feelings of safety); and reductions in some firearms victimisations compared to what would be expected had the TRM not been implemented.

In the long run, states the report, “the TRM should more tangibly affect community safety and feelings of safety for the better as high-risk offenders, drugs and weapons are increasingly removed from the environment.” That’s a big call. Appropriately, the report states that ongoing monitoring of both TRM activity and community sentiment is required to see if this expectation proves correct.

In conclusion

Despite a six-month trial period (01 January to 30 June 2022) and a 129-page evaluation report, the clearest conclusion of the TRM trial is that “it’s too early to tell.” Nevertheless, states the report, its “findings suggest that full implementation of the TRM—with all components working together—would lead to more complete safety outcomes than so far detected.”

And that’s the basis – it appears – upon which the four-district trial of TRM has been considered a success, leading to an official launch of the model across all police districts.

In terms of its objectives relating to improving the safety of frontline police officers, there are some indicators that the model’s mix of new training, processes, equipment and organisational design may deliver better safety outcomes for officers, but the metrics on this remain sketchy.

In terms of its objective of improving community safety, however, there is no clear indication that the model will have any real effect. From the structure of the Evidence Based Policing Centre’s evaluation report to the supporting narratives from the police minister’s office, this third TRM objective comes across as something of a ‘bolt on’, or perhaps a hoped for consequence that might cascade from success in the preceding officer safety objectives.

It is hard not to reflect on the irony of the Evidence Based Policing Centre finding “insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions about the TRM’s effects on community safety and feelings of safety” [my italics]. This re-imagining of the ART concept is – by design – an exercise in making frontline police officers feel safer in their roles. That’s a good thing. But a model designed to improve community safety it is not. Only time will tell whether a model that delivers on the imperative of police officer safety will ultimately have a positive or negative effect on the safety of the communities they are deployed in the service of.