What's up in Northland?
Northland police teams are under siege – gang and drug activity from outside and staffing problems from within. At least that’s the way it’s feeling to the staff and their supervisors. Ellen Brook reports.
Detective Sergeant Trevor Beatson has been policing in Northland for 11 years. He says the area is experiencing an onslaught of serious crime “and we don’t have the resources to cope with it”.
Police is aware of the problem and has responded with interim staff being sent in to help with file holdings, and the promise of six extra staff to come on secondment later in the year.
That’s great, Trevor says, and they really appreciate all the help they have received, however, they are still in crisis mode.
“It’s not a question of crime getting away on it, it has got away on us,” he says.
As of last month in Kaitaia, there were 35 unassigned files, 12 of which are considered critical – sexual assault cases, missing people and suspicious deaths. In the Mid North, there were 58 unassigned files for similar cases.
Under normal, business-as-usual conditions there would be 10 to 15 files waiting to be assigned.
But there has been no business as usual this year. It started at the end of 2015, with a Mongrel Mob-related murder on New Year’s Eve, followed by a gang-related drive-by shooting, then a massive meth inquiry – the biggest recorded bust in the country – eventually taken over by OFCANZ (Organised and Financial Crime Agency of NZ).
By late March, these cases were still being dealt with, along with all the other volume crime.
On just about every measure of serious crime caseloads per district, Northland has been ranked by Police, in a review earlier this year, as having the highest workload and Kaitaia and Kaikohe were recently featured in the news as being two of the most violent provincial towns in the country.
Police Association Mid and Far North committee chairman Detective Sergeant Chris Fouhy, based in Kaikohe, says it’s not a spike. “Drugs are a massive problem in the north. In a town like Kaikohe, once you take your feet off the throats of the gangs, they get cocky and cause you real issues,” he says.
And Northland has got them all – Rebels, Black Power, Mongrel Mob, Nomads, Head Hunters and Tribesmen. “They all commit crime to survive and are heavily involved in the drug trade, cooking and dealing meth especially.”
It’s estimated that serious crime is up by 17 per cent in Northland.
Chris says that since September last year, there have been five near-fatal assaults in his area that were all treated as potential homicides and required heavy investment of resources. In general, the assaults that police were attending were more brutal across the board.
Over one three-day period last month, there was a knife-point aggravated robbery of a car in Kerikeri, a stabbing in Kaitaia and a series of early morning ram-raid burglaries in Kerikeri and Kaikohe. “Unfortunately,” Chris says, “this is the norm.”
Trevor agrees: “We haven’t stopped. We’ve got aggravated robberies, kidnappings, sexual assaults, tourists being attacked.”
Staff from Kaikohe and Kerikeri were called in to work on the homicides in Kaitaia, with no backfill to compensate for their own workloads.
Chris says the area is operating what is effectively a metropolitan model of policing but with rural resources.
As they slog on with their file holdings, working 12-, 15- and 18-hour shifts, their Toil rates are going through the roof. “No one wants to let the team down. Everyone is working hard. They are tired, worn out and everyone needs a break,” Trevor says.
Some staff are taking their much-needed leave, or have been forced to take their Toil, with others having to fill the gaps and add to their own Toil.
For some staff, their Toil has doubled since March. The average number of Toil days in Trevor’s squad is 27, with one member’s Toil increasing from 25 days to 50 days.
He’s witnessing a staffing/Toil loop – if his squad gets help from another area, “that’s six months of ignoring another sub-area of Northland, with more Toil building up”.
Some of the blame for the current problems in Northland has been pinned on the geography of the area, but Trevor dismisses that, saying the tyranny of distance has always been an issue.
Region 1 director Jug Price says the “cavalry” of staff from other districts has been a Band-Aid only, and health and safety issues are on the horizon.
A few months ago, Police Association President Greg O’Connor visited the Far North and heard from staff that methamphetamine was a significant factor in most of the jobs they attended.
It was not long afterwards that Northland police reported they had uncovered the largest haul of meth in the country’s history.
Police has allowed the district to run over its RAT (resource allocation target), but its workforce management team is finding it hard to keep abreast of natural attrition as well as leave and Toil holdings, according to one source.
Trevor says he and his team are incredibly grateful to all the staff who came to help them out. Chris agrees and acknowledges the hurdles that local management is facing to secure extra resources.
“The new squad will definitely help and is a win, but I do think that putting extra staff into our squads would have been the way to go.”
Chris says the Mid and Far North are great places to live and work. Because of the challenges they face, he says the teams there all have a strong bond.
“We have learnt to make do with our limited resources and are always working on multiple jobs at any given time. You learn to prioritise early on or you get left in the dust.”
Meanwhile, the Kaikohe Business Association has said it will write to the Minister of Police and the Police Commissioner seeking more officers in local towns. The business association said the extra police “flying squads” had not appeared to help with increasing lawlessness in the area.
Tony Taylor, who heads a local community patrol, told media that Kaikohe was at the mercy of marauding youth gangs, who knew when police weren’t around.
At the end of last month, support was still needed and, for Northland police, the siege continues.
Northland is not the only Police district facing issues with file holdings and CIB capacity. The Police Association has made an Official Information Act request to Police to try to get a more accurate picture of the situation nationwide. At the time of going to print, we were still waiting on that information.