1 Dec 2016

'Safer Communities Together' - But where have all the police gone?

From Insight, 8:12 am on 4 December 2016

An increase in crime in Northland, coupled with "chronic" police understaffing, has led local business owners to voice their frustration.

As crime spirals out of control it's been dubbed "the lawless North".

"If something doesn't change soon - I'm worried people are going to start taking things into their own hands. They are talking vigilante action. They've had a gutsful." 

Hardware retailer and Kawakawa Business Association president Malcolm Francis is voicing the frustration of small towns across Northland, alarmed at a rise in crime and the apparent inability of police to stop it. 

Malcolm Francis Kawakawa Business Association President

Malcolm Francis Kawakawa Business Association President Photo: RNZ/Lois Williams

In the past year, violent robberies in the north increased by 33 percent. Other robberies and extortion rose by 26 percent. Burglaries were up 14 percent, and the rate of car thefts rose as well. 

Mr Francis said he had given up on reporting shoplifters, because there were no police in town when you needed them. 

"The Moerewa service station's been held up twice this year,"  Mr Francis said. 

"The woman behind the counter was threatened with a knife, and the police couldn't get there for an hour because they were all busy, from all over the area, at a car crash where the guy drowned.  

"Nobody left here to respond. And that's typical."

Some of Kaikohe's young people are "out of control". This picture is from a community patrol Facebook page that's been set up to fight crime

Some of Kaikohe's young people are "out of control". This picture is from a community patrol Facebook page that's been set up to fight crime Photo: SUPPLIED

Four youths were also arrested in the Bay of Islands town this week after an attack on a young German tourist that left her bruised and terrified. 

Meanwhile, across the road from Kawakawa police station a few weeks ago, thieves broke into a garage and stole power tools and a beloved 1991 Mitsubishi V3000 - in immaculate condition with only 130,000km on the clock - owned for 23 years by 74-year-old Dave Stone, who had been recovering from emergency surgery.

"I got up on the Saturday morning, opened the back door, and I saw a big hole in the glass door on the side of my garage," he said, becoming tearful.

"It was like losing a leg."

Dave Stone, 74, whose beloved car and tools were stolen from his garage opposite the Kawakawa police station.

Dave Stone, 74, whose beloved car and tools were stolen from his garage opposite the Kawakawa police station. Photo: RNZ/Lois Williams

The car was found crashed. The police fingerprint team arrived a few days later. 

"She told me she was the only burglary forensic person for the whole of the north," Mr Stone said. 

"The police treated us very well, though they weren't around to stop the buggers." 

Northland Police had also dealt with seven homicides since last November, most of them gang-related, and made the country's two biggest methamphetamine busts: a half-tonne of meth found at Ninety Mile Beach in June and a lab south of Whangarei that had churned out 9kg of the drug in ten weeks. 

Northland Tow Truck Owner and founder of the Kaikohe Community Patrol Tony Taylor

Northland Tow Truck Owner and founder of the Kaikohe Community Patrol Tony Taylor Photo: SUPPLIED

But in spite of officers' hard work, community groups said thieves and thugs were making life a misery for many, and were out of control. 

Tow-truck operator Tony Taylor, who also founded Kaikohe's Community Patrol and its Facebook page, said the kids were running amok. 

"I've got a yard full of cars here, and a lot of them were nicked by kids," he said. 

"There was one last week where a car was stolen in Kaikohe [and] ended up in Moerewa. There were six offenders involved, all of them under 16, one of them was a 12-year-old." 

A silver community watch patrol car, perch on a hill about a farm. Locals patrol the region doing work they say the police should be doing

Locals patrol the region, doing work they say the police should be doing. Photo: RNZ/Lois Williams

Mr Taylor said even when the young thieves were caught, there were no serious consequences for them. 

"The police take them home - the parents are drunk or out and they're back out on the street the next night,"  he said. "With their backpacks - that's for their tools.  Like screwdrivers to start the cars."  

Another stolen car with 'customised Far North ignition system'

Another stolen car with 'customised Far North ignition system' Photo: RNZ/Lois Williams

Police overworked, understaffed

Kaikohe police recently trialled a new initiative of taking a CYF social worker on patrol to pick youngsters up off the streets, take them home, and "educate" their parents. 

Senior Sergeant Brian Swann said combining that with police youth aid staff working the night shift had dramatically reduced referrals to Youth Court. 

But Mr Taylor said the bad stuff just kept on happening, tying up police time and forcing them to work crazy hours. He wanted tougher measures imposed - like a curfew.

Unsupervised children run amok at dusk in Northland

Unsupervised children run amok at dusk in Northland. Photo: RNZ/Lois Williams

"They can't say so publicly," he said. "But the [police officers] I know are tired, and frustrated as hell." 

Police Association president Chris Cahill said the pressure on the region's police this year had brought a chronic under-staffing problem into stark relief.  

"There are unacceptable stress levels being reported by our members," he said. 

"I appreciate that police have put some extra staff in to help out," he said, "but to be honest, when you look at some of those child abuse file numbers, some of the serious violent crime numbers, they need significantly more resources than that." 

Mr Cahill said a rise in methamphetamine use in Northland was behind much of the rising crime figures, with gangs competing for market share.  

"For reasons that aren't clear we seem to have been hit with a second wave of methamphetamine now, and that's driven by an increase in supply and a lowering of price rather than a drive in demand."

A tatty Kawakawa Police Sign

Photo: RNZ/Lois Williams

The most recent police workforce survey showed a drop in confidence of Northland police in the ability of the force to serve the public, and some of the lowest 'engagement' levels in the country. 

The region's Area Commander, Russell Le Prou, said it had been a very tough year indeed. 

"I have got tired staff and I need to look after them," he said. 

"Some of them need to take some time off and spend some time with their families."

Relief on the horizon?

Mr Le Prou said police action in the north had been more reactive, less preventive, than he would like because of the pressures this year. 

However, two new projects had the potential to ease some of the burden of crime on Mr Le Prou's officers and the community. 

A joint venture with the District Health Board would target meth addiction and supply, and bring eight new full-time staff to Whangarei, while a partnership with Far North iwi would employ six staff to tackle family violence at its roots. 

Vandalism with the letters FTW, which stands for F*** The World, shows the hopelessness felt by local youths.

Vandalism with the letters FTW, which stands for F*** The World, shows the hopelessness felt by local youths. Photo: RNZ/Lois Williams

If that project worked it could be rolled out around the country, he said.

But would that be enough to fill the gaps in Northland's thin blue line? 

"I don't think there'd be a district commander in the country who wouldn't say, if you give me more staff, I'll do more," Mr Le Prou said.  

"We're getting fantastic support, and we do a good job with what we've got.  My staff always want to do more. They put in some long hours and they often do good things the public don't see. So I won't detract from them and how hard they work.  But I wouldn't say no to more staff. " 

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