Close-up image of police shooting victim Jerrim Toms, killed on 31 March 2018 - a white 29-year-old man with a short brown beard and kind eyes.

Jerrim Toms investigation sets precedent for “epidemic of police killings”

The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) has absolved the police officers implicated in the lethal shooting of 29-year-old Jerrim Toms on 31 March last year. Its investigation has found the killing to be justified, but justice advocates People Against Prisons Aotearoa say that the facts of the case do not support the conclusion.

Officers have claimed that Toms approached them with a machete. Officers shot him twice in the chest. At this point, he turned towards the bush and tried to leave, but police fired at him a further eight times, hitting him in the back. Shots were fired after he had dropped the machete.

“Jerrim was fleeing, and this whole incident occurred on a remote stretch of rural highway at 4 in the morning,” says PAPA spokesperson Emilie Rākete. “There was nobody around.”

In the report, one officer initially claimed he didn’t shoot at Toms while he was fleeing. The IPCA found this to be a lie, but also found the officer’s continued shots were reasonable due to his inexperience and stress.

The other officer claimed that he shot Toms in the back because he was “an imminent threat” and he was acting to protect the public. The IPCA ruled he was justified in shooting.

“There was no public around to protect,” says Rākete. “The IPCA continues to set terrible precedents, finding that police are justified in killing New Zealanders regardless of the circumstances.”

Toms’ family have questioned why police opted to use firearms instead of tasers, which they had on hand.

According to his family, Toms was treated for bipolar disorder and had been hospitalised five-weeks prior to the shooting. After he relapsed the night of his death, his family contacted mental health services for help.

There is a mental health crisis in New Zealand, exacerbated by conditions of poverty, a precarious job market, mass incarceration, and underfunding of public services and mental health services. Because police are very well-funded, this has led to a widespread practice of police being sent to respond to mental health crises, which has been thoroughly criticised by mental health experts, as the mere presence of the uniform and sirens can escalate the crisis, causing fear and panic.

Shaun Robinson, Chief Executive for the Mental Health Foundation, has said that further arming of police will directly lead to more people experiencing mental health crises being shot by police.

“In 2016, police officers were found to have discharged tasers in 25 percent of all cases involving an individual with mental illness, but only 16.6 percent of cases involving others. Recent figures indicate this trend has continued,” says Robinson.

“There is no doubt that more armed officers will result in more deaths and injuries for people experiencing mental health crises. Now, as well as shooting people with tasers the police will be shooting them with guns.”

“The foundations are being laid for an epidemic of police killings,” says Rākete.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa will be holding a public meeting at the Ōtahuhu Town Hall Community Centre, High St, Auckland, on 7 December to discuss a community response to armed police patrols.

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Organise Aotearoa would like to send all our love and solidarity to Jerrim’s family. We will continue to organise to stop these senseless killings from happening, and create a world that provides all our mentally ill whānau with the support that they need.