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Help Is On Its Way … Yeah Right!

Marc My Words - 7 April 2005

Help Is On Its Way … Yeah Right!

When confronted by the obvious gaps in policing, struggling Police Minister George Hawkins recently responded by saying “help is on its way”. Now… does anyone really believe that? The police have been under huge pressures for some time. No doubt they have been doing as good a job as can be expected considering the distinct lack of resources and the lower personnel to population ratio than in other countries facing lower crime levels.

The consequences of depriving police of all they need to do their job are forcing them to prioritise. This means that crimes such as burglaries can take up to three weeks for a police response while available resources are directed to crimes that are more dramatic and violent. Exacerbating this situation are the pressures on police to concentrate on traffic infringements at the expense of core criminal investigations.

From an offender’s point of view, these competing prerogatives mean that as long as you ply your criminal ‘craft’ at the lower end – you can have every expectation of getting away with it, you will be a low priority and so avoid police response. If nothing is done to redress inadequate funding of the police, there will be a dangerous temptation to shift the goalposts further; in effect accepting a wider range of crimes that will be tolerated, if not in law then at least in spirit. Tragically it will mean the creation of even more victims, and all of this preventable.

So, how bad is police understaffing? In police communications centres alone, the number of staff leaving in the last year exceeded the number recruited. This at a time when we have had a long list of 111 failures (such as the still unresolved Iraena Asher case), and the extraordinary admission by the Police Commissioner that 111 calls would be better heeded if accompanied by a scream.

The thin blue line in Wellington for example, has become downright anorexic. Whereas in 1997 Wellington had one superintendent, 15 inspectors 64 non-sworn staff, 13 senior sergeants, 47 sergeants and 224 constables, they now have no superintendent, only four inspectors, 37 non-sworn staff, 12 senior sergeants, 32 sergeants and a meagre 195 constables! It would be nice to think that this trimmed down police force in our Capital was in keeping with a fall in crime but sadly this is not so.

It is a direct result of policy that undermines the credibility of law enforcement, pure and simple. A report released in the last week has quoted a Wellington officer admitting that there were “staff shortages resulting in dozens of minor crimes not being followed up” and “staff are regularly assigned non-core duties”

In other deficits of policing, 1134 cases were not allocated to investigating officers in the Counties-Manukau district alone; another 266 in North Shore-Waitakere; 210 in Auckland City; 100 in Wellington; and 96 in Christchurch. What all this boils down to is that police can’t respond to crime, can’t respond to the needs of victims, and can’t enforce our laws. If these things can’t be done, then for all intents and purposes we have lost ‘the rule of law’. We have instead replaced it with ‘the rule of some-of-the law’.

This is a deep seated problem that will have wide social repercussions; the most important of which is respect for the law. Respect for law must be backed up by its enforceability. Undetected, unpunished breaches of law will undermine the credibility of the deterrence of crime. George Hawkins’ response to all this has been to mumble, grumble, and bungle the issue. He has staunchly refused to give an assurance that he or the Government will demand that police immediately investigate reported crime. And how could he? There is an obvious shortage of staff to clear the backlog, yet he is planning no increases in the overall police numbers.

In his response the Minister argues that he has already increased police personnel. But … of the last 365 new frontline staff, 285 have been allocated to road policing!! Meanwhile Detective Inspector Paul Kench (Police Crime Manager, Canterbury) has admitted that cases unassigned in Christchurch “tend to be burglaries, car thefts, minor frauds and minor thefts” – crimes that hurt our families and communities disproportionately more than a few traffic infringements that yield extra government revenue.

We will do nothing to combat our littered landscape of crime if we don’t address the core issues:

1. We must not use subterfuge and mask the real level of offending, but get our heads out of the sand and face the problem.

2. We must address the magnitude of the rate of crime (1.79 individual and household victimisations in 2001) and respond accordingly with a cohesive and integrative police strategy that is resourced to do the job.

3. Start prioritising our response to crime by putting victims first – offenders second.

4. Ensure that police leadership will be given legislative and community backing commensurate with a rigorous accountability for their actions.

5. Support the police with timely court processes and sentencing that makes sense. Why should our police put life and limb at risk only for the offender to continue offending on bail, and when they do turn up in Court, they get a sentence that is a joke. Only then will we have a police force capable of doing what is asked of it, and the rule of law will begin to gain the respect it deserves. Law is law only when it can be asserted and maintained – otherwise, it is no more than hollow rhetoric ringing in the ears of victims.


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