23 Jun 2016

Northland businesses say towns becoming 'lawless'

5:36 am on 23 June 2016

Small towns in Northland are are making a plea for more and better local policing.

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In Kawakawa there is growing unease over crime levels. Photo: Wikicommons

Business people in Kawakawa, Kaikohe and Kaitaia say a new police flying squad system, introduced earlier this year in the north is not working.

They say their towns are increasingly lawless and the criminals are getting younger - and bolder.

Police announced a reorganisation of staff and stations in the Far North in February, saying it would get more police out from behind their desks and on to the streets.

But business leaders say that is not happening.

Kaikohe Business Association president Steve Sangster said the police station was prominent in the town's main drag - but the occupants were not.

"The crime seems to have picked up, and we are concerned that a lot of the time, there's no police presence in the town at all," he said.

"It's obvious that at times they can be stretched with one or more serious incidents elsewhere, and they have to deploy staff, but it appears the number of staff deployed here, is well below par."

Mr Sangster said some Kaikohe businesses were thinking about closing rather than trying to meet new safety standards for staff, in a town where security was unreliable.

Tony Taylor, who heads the local community patrol, said Kaikohe was at the mercy of marauding youth gangs, who knew when no police were around.

"It's getting out of control," Mr Taylor said. "You're getting big groups of youths walking around; 13- to 15-year-olds, and the classic example: we had two liquor stores hit last weekend.

"Groups of 15 youths running in and just grabbing what they want and getting out and assaulting the shop keepers while they're doing it. "

In Kawakawa there is also growing unease over crime levels and a perceived scarcity of police.

Business association chair Richard Duley said the local police station was down to one officer and two patrol cars which arrived daily and cruised local highways.

"Police response to less serious crime - shoplifting, burglaries - people are reporting no response whatsoever (to calls to police). Even when they've rung 111, there's been no response," he said.

Northland Police Area Commander Russell Le Prou said there had been no reduction in police numbers in Kawakawa.

He said the public safety sergeant overseeing Kawakawa was based elsewhere, but a senior sergeant worked from the police station along with the road team of four officers.

Mr Le Prou said the presence of patrol cars in the area was in itself a deterrent to would be-criminals and the changes had made police more able to meet demands across the Far North.

"Gone are the days that our officers sit in a police station and wait for emergency calls," he said.

"With our mobility devices and our iPhones and the like, we expect our staff to be out and about, deploying in their vehicles, being visible, looking for prevention opportunities."

The locals describe that as wishful thinking - though some use earthier terms.

Malcolm Francis who runs a hardware store in Kawakawa said it was the criminals who were seizing opportunities.

"We've had situations here where for instance the BP in Moerewa Station was robbed at knifepoint a couple of weeks ago, " he said.

"No-one came from the police at the time - they said they had other things they were doing, but armed robbery? Christ, you'd think everyone should have turned out for that."

Mr Francis said the robbery happened at 8pm and the first unit that got there turned up at 9.30pm.

"The place was closed up. The staff member had to go home - you know take her chances, knowing this guy was still out there."

Mr Francis said he was later told that all available police had been at a crash in which a rider had drowned in a ditch.

Northland MP Winston Peters told a Paihia meeting this week that the thin blue line in the north was not so much thin as emaciated.

He said police had had no funding increase since 2009 and were being forced to publicly defend an indefensible lack of resources, while budding criminals get bolder by the day.

"The government claims the crime rate has dropped by 16 percent," he said.

"That's demonstrably false. The statistics show police are attending more incidents but charging fewer people. Ask any provincial lawyer - they'll tell you arrests are down. They're letting people off with warnings to keep the crime figures down - and that's because because of political pressure."

Mr Peters said he had been accosted by a teenager in Kaitaia this week asking for cash.

"I got stopped on the street by a kid in a school uniform asking if I had any money." he said. "That's the sort of attitude we've got building up, and it's not doing our province any good whatsoever.

Mr Peters said the region's tourist industry would be damaged unless police put a stop to intimidation tactics and growing contempt for the law among youth.

He said police relied on community partnerships to reduce crime, such as the recent successful initiative in Kaitaia, where businesses and the council had set up a CCTV system, monitored at the police station by security officers, paid by the community.

"A good example of that was a woman who'd set fire to rubbish tins a number of times - who came and turned herself in, simply because of the CCTV footage," he said.

Superintendent Le Prou said Northland Police would take on six additional investigative detectives in the coming year, to support existing staff and focus on crimes such as burglary and car theft.

Mr Sangster said the Kaikohe Business Association would write to the police minister and the Police Commissioner this week, to appeal for more locally-based police officers in their town and other Northland worries about community security.