Sponge bullets suggested by police commissioner ‘incredibly dangerous’ – lobby group

After axing Armed Response Teams, the Police Commissioner has suggested using “sponge bullets” – but opponents say there is no evidence to support the use of these potentially lethal weapons.

A sponge round and launcher.

A “sponge round” and launcher. Photo: NZ POLICE

Just a day after the Police Commissioner Andrew Coster announced Armed Response Teams (ART) will be axed, he is now floating the idea of arming frontline police with what he calls “sponge bullets” instead.

Armed offender squads (AOS) in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have had access to the weapons since 2013 and they were rolled out to all AOS units in 2015.

Coster said the sponge rounds were a less lethal option.

“An example we’ve seen through the course of the ART trial is sponge rounds – so, they are a less lethal option that allow incapacitation of someone from a safe distance and that can avoid the need to use a firearm.

“We’ve learned a lot through the trial and there are a range of things that we will take into an ongoing programme to keep evolving the training and equipping of our people to do their roles but we’ve been clear that any future steps will see us remaining unarmed in the way we deploy,” he said.

The idea was already raising serious concerns among vocal opponents of the Armed Response Teams.

Emilie Rākete is the founder of lobby group People Against Prisons Aotearoa, and is studying the political economy of prisons at the University of Auckland.

She said the “sponge bullets” were extremely dangerous, and would be used against Māori more than any other group if they were rolled out. That was also a concern about the use of ARTs – a concern that appears to have been borne out in the data.

A collage of Palestinian men and youths in 2016 posing with a dressing pad on the eye that they lost, a few months after they were wounded by a sponged-tipped bullet used by Israeli security forces to disperse demonstrations.

A collage of Palestinian men and youths in 2016 posing with a dressing pad on the eye that they lost, a few months after they were wounded by sponged-tipped bullets used by Israeli security forces to disperse demonstrators. Photo: AFP

“In my research on police violence … ‘sponge bullets’ is an incredibly misleading term,” she said.

“The two most common forms are 40mm rubber-coated steel bullets – these were used for the pacification of Northern Ireland by the British Army – and, second of all, a lead buckshot which is fired out of a standard shotgun shell.

“Both of these kinds of weapons are incredibly dangerous. They destroy organs, crush bones and kill.

“In the last two weeks alone the American Association of Ophthalmologists – that’s eye surgeons – say that 14 people in the US have been blinded by exactly the kinds of weapons that Andrew Coster is proposing arming front-line police with in New Zealand. When we know that police institutionally discriminate against Māori and Pacific people, the idea of arming them with these is frankly completely out the gate.”

She said there was no evidence to show there was a need for such weapons.

“I asked the police before they started the armed police patrol trial last October for their statistics on violence against police officers and what those statistics showed is that police are assaulted in low double digits every year, that the use of firearms against cops is incredibly rare and the rate has not worsened in about a decade.

“It flies in the face of evidence to then say ‘in order to keep ourselves safe we need to arm them with these sorts of weapons that we know destroy eyeballs, crush lungs, break spines and kill people’.”

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