Association Policy on Police Numbers

NZPA | Wed August 10th, 2016

This is the current Police Association policy on police numbers, as outlined in the 2014 NZPA Policy Document published in July 2014 ahead of the General Election.


The Police Association believes government policy on police numbers should:

  1. Work towards better comparability with similar overseas jurisdictions in police to population ratios, with the objective of matching Queensland’s ratio.
  2. At least restore and maintain a 1:500 police to population ratio in the short term, to avoid falling further behind and worsening existing shortages.
  3. Ring-fence GDB and primary response resources and introduce an expectation that police staff working in specialist areas will be used when necessary to fill frontline gaps.


What is the ‘right’ number of police for New Zealand?

Police recruitsDetermining how many police New Zealand should have depends on what New Zealanders expect their police service to do. A quick response to a 111 call is essential. Keeping our roads safe, investigating and solving serious crimes, following up after a burglary, and keeping the streets safe after dark would top most people’s lists. However, many of the services the public also rely on police to provide do not come so readily to mind until they fail.

When numbers are short, resources inevitably get prioritised into the most visible and thus highest risk areas. Historically, this has meant investigation and resolution of some types of crime had to take a lower priority. Crime prevention, and proactive targeting of serious crime and criminals, was near impossible. Prioritisation of scarce resources was the reason for the failures of the late 1990s and early 2000s: disbanding  of drug and organised crime squads, allowing P to take hold; Communications Centres failures; and un-investigated child abuse files.

Following those failures, the 2005-2008 Labour- led and 2008-2011 National-led Governments significantly increased police numbers. At the end of this period of increases, there were 8,907 fully funded constabulary (sworn) officers by December 2011 and a government expectation on Police these numbers would be maintained.[1] However, since then, resource constraints and rising attrition have seen numbers fall, to be 110 below the current target of 8,928 as at June 2014, even when including authorised officers in the constabulary total.[2] At the same time, budget-driven cuts to non-constabulary support staff have placed additional workload pressures on the already stretched constabulary.

Figure 1 [3] Constabulary police numbers

Constabulary Police Numbers


Proactive policing

An increase in police numbers does not simply mean ‘doing more of the same’. While there is clearly unmet demand in terms of public calls for response via the 111 system and Crime Reporting Line, the biggest potential benefit of increased police numbers is in proactive and preventive policing.

The injection of staff from 2005 to 2011 allowed Police to embark on the Policing Excellence programme, a key part of which was implementing the ‘Prevention First’ focus. A central part of Prevention First has been the establishment of Neighbourhood Policing Teams (NPTs). These are teams which work proactively in high-crime areas to build community relationships, maintain high visibility of positive policing activity, and target known offenders. NPTs have been extremely effective where they have been deployed.

The NPT approach, like many aspects of the Policing Excellence changes, was first deployed in Counties Manukau District, following the injection of an additional 300 constabulary staff. Smart decisions were made to use the boost not simply to address existing unmet demand, but rather to ‘get ahead of demand’ through a proactive approach. Unfortunately, in every other district, NPTs have had to be deployed from within existing or shrinking resources. This means staff have been pulled from response policing or other specialised areas such as Youth Aid. While the new teams have been effective at the proactive end, a side effect has been even greater pressure on the response and specialist ‘business as usual’ policing which must still be done.

Emergency response, investigations, and prevention are not ‘either/or’. They are all important; and they cannot all be done to the standards the public want and deserve without an increase in police numbers.


New Zealand significantly under-policed

International comparisons are a useful indicator of what we should expect, as a nation, to need to invest in policing.

In 2008, the incoming government pledged to continue increasing police numbers to maintain a constabulary police to population ratio of 1:500;[4]  though this commitment was not reiterated prior to the 2011 election.[5] New Zealand currently has a ratio of one constabulary police officer to every 515 people.[6]

In contrast, England and Wales (which together make up  a legal jurisdiction policed by 43 regional police forces) has a total constabulary police to population ratio of 1:431, even despite police cuts in recent years. Every Australian jurisdiction has a considerably more favourable ratio than New Zealand, and overall Australia has one constabulary police officer for every 411 people.[7]

The most comparable jurisdiction may be Queensland, which has a very similar total population and urban-rural population split to New Zealand. The Queensland ratio is 1:423.

Figure 2 [8] Population per sworn police officer

Population per sworn officer

These comparative ratios show that New Zealand continues to be significantly under-policed for its population and geography. The jurisdiction with the next worst ratio, Victoria, is currently in the midst of a programme to boost its police numbers by 1700 out of concern they were under-policed.[9]  We must bring New Zealand’s police to population ratio more closely in line with those in similar jurisdictions. Our target should be to match Queensland’s ratio. On current numbers, that would require approximately 1900 more constabulary police.

Such a significant expansion in numbers will be challenging. However, we must take a longer term view in committing to this goal, and work towards it over the next few years. It is critical that, in the immediate term, we reverse the recent contraction in police numbers. We need to at least keep pace with population growth, in line with the commitments made in 2008 to maintain a 1:500 ratio, because if we fall further behind, it may become near-impossible to catch up and preserve the standards of police response and effectiveness New Zealanders have the right to demand. To restore a 1:500 ratio would require a further 264 constables, at current population figures.


Focus on the front line

Despite constabulary staff increases over the last decade, the ‘front line’ continues to be under-staffed in many areas. It is not unusual for GDB (General Duties Branch) shifts in medium-sized cities now to actually be staffed solely by a Sergeant (or Acting Sergeant) and one or two Constables, as other staff are on leave, attending mandatory training or called away to other duties. Meanwhile, rural areas have to make do with fewer and fewer staff, covering larger and larger areas, particularly in terms of off-duty back-up for officers working alone. Both situations create risks to staff safety and operational decision-making, and of service failure, which are unacceptable. Urgent priority needs to be given to investment in GDB response sections, with a focus not only on resources but also on training, supervision and support.


Safeguarding the front line

Police working in specialist squads are increasingly ‘ring-fenced’ to their specialist tasks, which means they can’t be used to fill in elsewhere in the organisation. GDB section staff, who are responsible for frontline patrol and response policing, are used in most areas  as a resource to cover staff shortages elsewhere. This means GDB sections, which are already stretched,  may be further depleted as staff are called away to (for example) escort prisoners or assist with major cases.

Nothing is more fundamental to policing than the ability to respond effectively, efficiently, and safely to threats to public safety and calls for emergency service. Response policing is a highly visible part of policing, and it is a part of policing where a service failure can have very serious and immediate consequences.

The current situation must be turned around. As well as boosting numbers, GDB and other primary response units should be ‘ring-fenced’ against being raided, and there should be a greater expectation that staff from other areas of police will be used to fill gaps and cover on shifts.


[1] Minister of Police, 2014/15 Estimates for Vote Police, report of the Law and Order Committee, House of Representatives, pages 16-17

[2]  Authorised officers are not sworn constables, but rather are non-sworn employees who are warranted with limited powers to perform narrow functions. See section 24 of the Policing Act 2008. Prior to the Policing Act 2008, most employees now empowered as authorised officers were sworn as Temporary Constables under the Police Act 1958, with the scope of their powers limited by their job description.

[3]  Source: NZ Police HR Scorecard. Constabulary FTEs including Authorised Officers, excluding recruits.

[4] “National will boost police numbers so there is one police officer for every 500 people by 2011, and we will keep this ratio as the population grows.”, National Party Policy 2008: Boosting Police Numbers, 20 October 2008

[5]2014/15 Estimates for Vote Police, op cit., page 11

[6]Based on 8818 constabulary officers and authorised officers (FTEs),excluding recruits in training, at June 2014 (NZ Police HR Scorecard), and Statistics NZ ‘Population Clock’ estimate of 4,541,192 residents at 2 July 2014.

[7]Sources: Annual Reports of Australian jurisdictions at 30 June 2013, sworn numbers excluding recruits, Protective Services Officers, ACPO and Auxiliaries where applicable. ACT is all AFP sworn including those on commonwealth duty in States/ Territories. State/Territory populations Australian Bureau of Statistics end of September quarter 2013. England and Wales includes all constabulary FTEs in 43 forces plus BTP at 30 September 2013, and excludes PCSOs and Special Constables. Population statistics Office for National Statistics August 2013 population estimate for England and Wales (being most recent published estimate).


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