Thin Blue Line Set To Snap
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman
I feel very sorry for the police - short-staffed and under-resourced, they are trying to fight a tidal wave of crime that is becoming more sophisticated and complex each day.
In fact, "organised and sophisticated" was how the head of the North Shore Police burglary squad described last month's theft of 23,500 pure pseudoephedrine tablets - reportedly worth up to $1 million once converted into the popular, but highly dangerous, drug methamphetamine.
Since this drug has now been linked to a number of horrendous violent crimes - including the RSA killings and recent hand-severing machete attacks - the mayhem caused by this drug haul could be massive.
At 7,200, New Zealand's sworn police numbers are among the lowest in the developed world, and criminal gang members outnumber police by three to one.
At 18.2 police officers per 10,000 of population, New Zealand lags behind Australia with 22.4 officers per 10,000 of population, the UK with 24.3 and the US with 28.3. Effectively, to catch up with Australia we would need an additional 1,700 sworn officers, 2,500 to match the UK, and 4,000 to equal the US.
Present police numbers are lower than they should be, due to the fact that Labour cancelled a scheduled police college recruitment intake not long after becoming the Government. As a result, there have been shortages in Auckland of more than 100 officers, with police from around the country being deployed to help fill the gap. That, of course, resulted in added pressure on local police.
The fallout from this political interference will be felt for some time - including the cost of recruiting police from England, and the delays while they familiarise themselves with New Zealand conditions - not only in budgetary strain but in cancelled police leave.
Police currently have 266,929 days of leave owing - that is more than 700 years. The strain on staff and their families, when officers cannot take owed leave promised to them, is immense. But, given the serious lack of back-up staff, so too is the strain on the police that are left when their colleagues are away.
But it doesn't stop there. Police numbers dealing with the detection of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories and the resulting criminal prosecutions are totally inadequate. Last year, the number of labs discovered jumped threefold. This year it is set to skyrocket, with police knowing they are only scratching the surface.
Part of the problem is that the follow-up police work is so intensive - senior police officers must work closely with ESR staff, painstakingly labelling each packet, bottle, and test-tube, as well as highly toxic inflammable chemicals, in order to protect the evidence and create a waterproof case. As a result, the police turnover on the clan lab teams is high and, with the officers on these teams often needing to be deployed onto more urgent jobs, the backlog of work is overwhelming.
It is the same for much forensic work. While frontline police can recover stolen property, there is often not enough staff to carry out the follow-up work that will result in timely prosecutions.
The mountain of paper-work that police have to cope with these days is driving some officers out of the service but, given the propensity of the justice system to be more about procedure than justice - with smart lawyers uncovering technical breaches by stressed out police, resulting in criminal offenders going free - the quality of reports is paramount.
However, all too often, when a police investigation results in an offender being found guilty - with Labour's new sentencing regime ensuring that offenders serve only the non-parole period of their sentences - the sentence is a slap over the hand with a wet bus ticket.
But, even if an offender goes to prison, there is little likelihood that the experience will act as a deterrent - New Zealand's recidivism rate of almost 80 percent is one of the highest in the developed world, and is an absolute indictment of the effectiveness of our prisons.
So, what needs to be done?
Firstly, given that the primary role of government is the maintenance of law and order, we must boost police numbers to equal that of Australia.
Secondly, the police budget needs to be re-adjusted to make up for the Labour Government's overall cut in police funding when it came to power - reduced from 1.9 percent of total government spending to 1.7 percent. Further, a thorough review of operational resourcing needs to take place, to ensure that police are able to keep ahead of the increasing sophistication of crime.
Thirdly, just as the police have been instructed to take a zero tolerance approach to traffic offending - some sceptics would say as a revenue collection exercise - so too, do they need the mandate to take a zero tolerance approach to crime, targeting repeat offenders, organised crime and youth offending.
Fourthly, sentencing laws should be changed and parole abolished so there is 'truth in sentencing', with offenders being forced to serve their full court imposed sentence - if they do the crime, they should do the time.
And, fifthly, prisons should be reformed to include punishment - short bursts of solitary confinement with hard labour and meals like porridge - and 40-hour workweeks designed to rehabilitate, with additional solitary confinement periods for infringements.
While this is not the entire answer, it would be a start - it would empower the police and show criminals that change is on the way.