More police, better communities
Anyone doubting the value of increasing the number of police officers in New Zealand need look no further than Counties Manukau in South Auckland.
When 300 extra police were added there over a three-year period from 2009 to 2011, it enabled a second front of officers to tackle rising levels of crime that had left the district struggling.
They simply didn’t have enough cops, and the stress on frontline units was having a serious knock-on effect on their ability to get on top of crime.
South Auckland’s reputation as a high-crime area was growing until the message on resourcing finally got through to politicians who pledged the extra officers.
Combined with the Police roll-out of smart new policing strategies, the extra staff began to turn the tide on crime in suburbs such as Otara.
There was a considerable drop in offending – up to 20 per cent – particularly for serious crimes such as homicide. At one stage, the district went without a homicide for a year.
As a flow-on effect, there was also a considerable cut in the number of prisoners at that time, as Police Minister Judith Collins told the Police Association’s Annual Conference in 2011.
Police Association President Chris Cahill says there is a direct correlation between police resourcing and police’s ability to detect, respond to and prevent crime.
Last month, he told the Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) organisation that in recent years, as Police had introduced new national models, such as the File Management Centres, the Criminal Justice Support Units and the District Command Centres, they had been staffed by shifting people away from other positions, “invariably frontline response and investigative staff”.
That was now being reflected in increased crime rates, lower visibility of police on the streets and delays in investigating some crimes. Even Counties Manukau has been affected, with the number of general duties officers dropping from 479 in 2011 to 318 in 2015.
LGNZ wants the Government to increase Police resources, with particular emphasis on staffing.
Mr Cahill said lobbying by the Association had already led to commitments of extra police from the Labour Party (1000 more officers) and New Zealand First (1800), plus support staff and equipment, and he was confident the Minister of Police was also seeking an increase.
But he warned that robbing Peter to pay Paul was not the way to meet demand.
Previously, Police budgets were cut in the late 90s and early 2000s. That resulted in cancelled recruit wings which led to an Auckland staffing crisis and CIB resources were run down.
The cutting of drug and organised crime squads to focus scarce staff on volume crime then allowed organised crime and methamphetamine to become entrenched and the whole country is now playing catch-up on that.
The eventual boost to numbers in Counties Manukau fixed the problems there and, with the extra staff, police were able to trial new approaches.
A Major Crime Team was created to provide an initial CIB response to crimes that would otherwise have forced a whole CIB squad to drop existing files to investigate. Public Safety Teams (PSTs) were established, taking on hot-spot policing and self-initiated arrests to remove offenders from the street.
With these “quick wins” under their belt, CM turned to the next step of Policing Excellence and Prevention First strategies, including setting up Neighbourhood Policing Teams that were highly visible and engaged with the community. Unfortunately, in every other district, NPTs have had to be deployed from existing or shrinking resources.
At the end of that period of increased police numbers, there were 8907 fully funded constabulary officers and the expectation was that number would be maintained. Since then, resource constraints and attrition have seen the numbers fall to 8610 as at October this year.
New Zealand now has one police officer to every 526 citizens. This compares with Australia’s one to 432. The jurisdiction most comparable to New Zealand in terms of population and urban-rural split is Queensland, which has one to 413.
These ratios show that we are under-policed for the size of our population and geography, and failure to keep pace with that is starting to show in the rising rate of reported crime.
The message from the Association is that numbers do make a difference – better communities and a safer frontline – and the Government knows that because of what was able to be achieved in Counties Manukau.
Staff crisis affects duties
Some basic policing is becoming untenable in Northland as a result of working with minimum, or below, staffing numbers.
The Police Association continues to receive concerning reports about staffing from throughout the country, including Southland, Canterbury, Central and Eastern and especially in Northland.
It has become difficult to carry out basic policing duties, according to staff. For example, they say, there is simply no back-up if people are sick and, in some areas, a lack of jailers is preventing basic police work being completed.
Offenders are not being arrested because officers know there is no one to look after them. Or an offender has been arrested but is later released, sometimes against the national policy for family violence in breach of Protection Order offences, because there is no one to cover.
Now officers are worried they will still be short of jailers over the busy Christmas period. Police has apparently promised more staff, but nothing has happened yet.
One officer described the reports as shocking examples of how police in some areas can’t provide the appropriate level of service expected not only by the community but by Police management.
It was also having an impact on the health and safety of constables, some of whom were working 15 hours straight, then having to show up for their next shift, the officer said. Another Northland officer said everyone accepted that there were times when staff would be off sick and that unexpected or late-notice events meant staff had to cover from time to time. The difference, he said, was that this was ongoing, day after day, week after week.
The constant pressure of running a frontline section on minimum numbers in provincial areas is creating risks for staff. One member described it as being like a rubber band being stretched. “One day it’s going to go ‘ping’ and someone will lose an eye!”
In Central District, some vacancies are not being filled and the reduction of one-, two- and three-person stations means there is no dedicated cover for some areas. The town of Manaia, in South Taranaki, for example, which was a one-person station, has been vacant for two years. Officers from Opunake and Hawera have to cover, which stretches their resources and means back-up can be up to half an hour away.
Many of these smaller provincial towns are deprived areas with gang problems, high levels of alcohol and substance abuse and family violence.
The RAT (resource allocation target) in most places needs to be increased. In Eastern, abstractions (absences for reasons other than sickness, ie, maternity leave, restricted duties, being stood down) are at various times up to more than 20. That means resources are being spread too thinly.
In Dunedin, members report that due to being inundated with overflow from the Otago Corrections Facility, police there are also struggling to cover the custody unit. The solution has been to bring in people from other areas, which means some core police functions, such as prevention, are being affected.
The Association continues to lobby Police and the Government on the issue of staffing numbers. If members feel unsafe at any time, the best advice is to follow your TENR (threat, exposure, necessity, response) training. If your assessment is that the risk to your own safety is too great, don’t proceed. Talk to your supervisor about the risk and discuss the options.
Photo: Ross Martin/NZ Police.