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The future of policing - why review the Act?

20 June 2006

Shaping the future of policing - or, why review the Police Act?

In 1958 - the year the current Police Act came into effect - the population of New Zealand was just over 2.2 million. Many of our communities were rural and a rotary telephone was likely the most sophisticated piece of equipment in the average Kiwi home. Forty eight years on the population has nearly doubled to top the four million mark. Back then, Police staff numbered 2269. Today there are 10,500 and we are in the middle of a technology revolution.

Nearly half a century ago (in an era often referred to as the golden years) there were few civilians in Police and little specialisation beyond general duties and the Criminal Investigation Branch. A one-size-fits-all style of policing prevailed. 'Police the pubs to manage the towns' was about as strategic as things got, and there was little concept of enlisting the public's cooperation in preventing crime.

In 1958 New Zealand Police were the pre-eminent law enforcement agency. In reality, it was the only policing agency. Today there's a myriad of public, private and volunteer agencies. There's the large private security industry. Fisheries, immigration and customs officers possess coercive powers, and Neighbourhood Support groups and community patrols bring extra eyes and ears to the policing function.

In short, policing in 2006 is more networked, co-operative and complex. It's high time to explore and better define the relationships, roles and boundaries of (and between) these small 'p' policing organisations and big 'P' New Zealand Police.

A raft of other changes since 1958 also make it timely to take stock, and think hard about what sort of police legislation is needed for 21st century New Zealand.

When the current Police Act was drafted there was no Official Information Act, no Bill of Rights Act, no Police Complaints Authority, and no legislative regime for health and safety requirements. The drugs of choice were alcohol and nicotine, but illicit drugs barely registered. And the concept of overseas police deployments was as foreign then as it is commonplace today.

If police officers got things wrong in the 1950s a rigid, military-style disciplinary tribunal system swung into action. That court-martial model is still with us today, and is increasingly out of step with modern approaches to managing performance.

As a nation, New Zealand has evolved. Society today is now faster moving, more demanding, consumer-driven, internationally linked and multi-cultural.

Policing today needs to be flexible enough to deal with a car theft on one hand and trans-national crime and terrorism on the other.

Police don't shy from that, nor have we through the intervening years. The reality is that the world has moved on, New Zealand has moved on, yet in many respects Police's own legislation is a hangover from a Victorian age.

The 1958 Police Act was produced with the best intentions, reflecting a post-WWII New Zealand. It's unfair to say that New Zealand Police have operated in a vacuum since 1958. Of course it hasn't. New Zealand and its Police have moved with the times. But in our efforts to keep pace with a fast-changing environment, the Government has needed to amend the 1958 Police Act more than 25 times since it was enacted.

However, these changes have occurred in a patchwork, piecemeal fashion. Amendments to the Act have been passed to address specific issues that have arisen since 1958, resulting in outmoded legislation held together by a series of band-aids.

It will be no surprise, then, that New Zealand Police welcomes the Government's announcement of a comprehensive review of the Police Act, and accompanying Police Regulations.

The time has come to take a comprehensive look at the legislation that guides the structure and operation of the New Zealand Police, and how this fits with modern-day New Zealand so that it not only better reflects where we are as a nation today, but where we think we will be in the future.

The review of the Police Act is a unique opportunity, at least in my lifetime, to take the next step in positioning Police for the future.

In March this year, the Government tasked the New Zealand Police with a two-year project to shape the development of what will ultimately result in a new Police Act and matching Regulations. The first year of this project has been set aside to start a public discussion around policing. In effect, we're starting with a blank page, with no pre-determined outcomes.

We have committed to lead this work in an open and consultative way. The public, key stakeholders and Police staff will be encouraged to have input and make comment at different stages of the process.

It's often said that 'Police are the public and the public are the Police'. Here's a chance for all New Zealanders to have a meaningful say and help shape the future of policing - the New Zealand way.

Howard Broad is the newly-appointed Commissioner of Police. Full details about the review of Police legislation can be obtained from www.policeact.govt.nz


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