By: Carla Penman
A new law could strip judges of the power to decide on anything less than jail time for people who attack paramedics and other first responders.
NZ First MP Darroch Ball’s Protection for First Reponders and Prison Officers Bill, which was plucked from the ballot in May, proposes a mandatory minimum sentence of six months’ jail for people who assault emergency services staff.
Victoria in Australia brought in a similar law earlier this year after a backlash over two women who were discharged for assaulting a paramedic. And, just last week, the United Kingdom passed a new law, doubling jail time for people who attack emergency service staff.
Lisa Buckingham has been a paramedic for the past 17 years. The south Auckland St John manager has had close shaves with attackers on the job but mostly receives verbal abuse.
She says her staff are often assaulted, which she thinks is really sad, and which, in some cases, has cut their careers short.
Earlier this year, one of her paramedics was assaulted after attending a synthetics-related call-out. “She was punched in the side of the head. After the job had been completed, someone came to find her and punch her in the side of the head,” she says.
Buckingham supported her traumatised colleague last Thursday in court, where restorative justice as punishment was discussed. She believes a harsher sentence is warranted.
“This is a horrendous act that somebody has committed against one of our officers that’s absolutely trying to do the best for our community.”
So far this year, there have been more than 1,200 attacks on paramedics.
Of those, 36 per cent involved alcohol, 13 per cent were mental-health related and 13 per cent related to drugs.
St John CEO Peter Bradley told the Herald most of the assaults and abuse happen in the major centres and at night. “Whether it’s been spat at, bitten, punched, kicked, so a range. We’ve even had one recently of indecent behaviour on a staff member.”
A 69-year-old man was sentenced in May to 12 months intensive supervision for groping a paramedic who had been caring for him.
Buckingham believes that it’s about time attackers were sent a clear message.
“It’s just about highlighting that you will be put in prison if you touch us and I think everyone agrees that that’s fair enough.”
The Police Association generally supports the move to increase penalties as a deterrent to attackers but its president Chris Cahill thinks it’s unlikely the Government will support moves to further add to the prison population.
He says experience shows judges don’t like having their sentencing discretion interfered with or removed, so there could be some resistance from them.
“I do have concerns about the definition of ‘injury’, given the variety of possible injuries inflicted or suffered by police on the job.
“However, offending at the more serious end of the scale would meet the bill’s proposed definition.”
The Police and Fire and Emergency New Zealand declined to comment on the bill.
A Corrections spokesperson wouldn’t comment on its stance either, but said the department did everything possible to minimise the risk of violence to its prison staff.
“Our frontline staff are well trained and have more safety equipment than ever before.
“We have invested significantly in training and tools to keep our people safe,” a spokesperson said.