At the pointy end of prevention

NZPA | Sun April 1st, 2018

A reactive frontline squad with a holistic approach to criminal behaviour is behind the success of Christchurch’s Offender Prevention Team.

OPT gang hqBefore and after a gang headquarters is shut down by the OPT in Christchurch.

Dealing with organised crime in New Zealand is at the sharp end of policing, where our highest-risk, hard-core offenders are making a nuisance of themselves through drugs, firearms and family harm.

Perhaps it’s not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about Prevention First, but it’s where the Christchurch Offender Prevention Team (OPT) do their best work, based on a simple premise – remove the offender from the criminal equation, and do it as quickly and  efficiently as possible.

If it sounds like basic, old-school policing, you’re right, it is. As OPT OC Detective Senior Sergeant Kylie Schaare says, a lot of what they do is “common sense stuff”. The difference is, the team also looks at options to prevent reoffending, such as referrals for drug and alcohol treatment.

“We take a holistic view of what might be contributing to the offending and what we do over and above arrest to change that behaviour,” Kylie says.

They focus on the top 2 per cent of offenders who are committing 20 per cent of the crime, and a key to targeting and catching them is a rapid response to “hot” information.

A problem identified a few years ago was that a lot of the piping-hot intel coming into police from tip-offs, or human source management units (HSMU), was not being acted on quickly enough. By the time the public safety teams or organised crime units were able to react, it was often too late.

The intel had been languishing in a paper tray or inbox, and the trail was cold.

But since the OPT has been equipped with the right staff to “take every opportunity to prevent harm”, it’s had some impressive results.

Last year, over a four-month period, it dismantled a gang HQ in central Christchurch, closed down other drug houses, arrested 14 patched gang members and 37 associates, and seized substantial amounts of meth, cannabis, synthetics and firearms along the way. They made nine youth referrals, nine family harm referrals, four mental health referrals and 38 Housing NZ evictions for meth use and illicit activity.

In 2016, the team carried out 181 search and surveillance operations and 264 search warrants, seizing 145 firearms, 12,040 rounds of ammunition, 15 kilograms of dried cannabis, 2263 cannabis plants, 786 grams of meth, 1687gm of synthetics and $579,754 in cash.

But behind the short-term reactive policing are the wider goals. “It’s not just about kicking in doors. We have a full wraparound focus. My job is also about creating relationships within the community, dealing with families, finding out what’s triggering the offender, making referrals to other agencies and making youth crime a focus.”

The OPT model, which is now being considered for rollout across other districts, had its genesis in Christchurch about five years ago.

OPT manager Detective Inspector Greg Murton says it evolved from the time when the regular rosters included spending a couple of weeks on prevention-type work, doing the rounds of hot spots, etc. That morphed into the OPT which combines the talents and resources of traffic targeting teams, youth crime teams, five rotational PST members, five AOS members and that valuable HSMU intel.

“It’s really common sense stuff and we are getting some fantastic results, which is why this model will be tried elsewhere,” Kylie says. “In some ways, it’s old school, dealing directly and appropriately with the offender, but it doesn’t stop there.

“We always ask what else we can do to prevent this happening again.”

There is a strong child protection focus.

“When we go into homes where there are children, I ask staff to check if there is food in the fridge, beds for all the children, etc,” Kylie says.

“If things don’t look good, there will be a referral to another agency. It’s about keeping a wide focus and being the voice for children in need.”

It is also high risk. “There are often firearms,” says Kylie. “We are regularly seeing two or three weapons most weeks.”

Despite that, it’s a popular secondment. And why wouldn’t it be… getting out there to deal with priority offenders quickly and efficiently is what most people join Police to do – shutting down gang pads, removing a violent abuser from a family home, arresting a mobile meth cook and identifying a young person who might be helped down a different pathway.

Now that the model is almost ready to be rolled out to other districts, it’s likely that there will be plenty of members putting up their hands to be part of the OPT action.

– ELLEN BROOK

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