Saturday night's all right for fighting

By Susan Edmunds

Exclusive: Police are having to deal with increasing numbers of people who are so drunk they are a danger to themselves and others, statistics reveal. While overall crime rates are decreasing significantly, violence, especially alcohol-fuelled offending is proving especially stubborn. Police say our city streets just aren't safe at night.

A crowd of youths fight on Queen Street. Photo / Michael Craig
A crowd of youths fight on Queen Street. Photo / Michael Craig

It's Saturday night and downtown Auckland is packed. Groups of shirtless men are shouting about finishing off their day at the Nines with a trip to Showgirls. Teenage girls wearing "rap god" singlets are still giddy from the Eminem concert.

Then, the crowd stops walking. On each side of the crawling traffic, two young men are shouting and throwing hand gestures at each other. One yells: "South side!" The other responds from the opposite side of the road: "West side!"

Then both rush on to the road, seeming not to care about the cars around them. A punch is thrown and it's all on. A crowd piles in until about 30 people are shoving and punching each other. One man is pushed towards the glass windows of the Body Shop. He falls but scrambles back to his feet.

The brawl pushes back again on to Darby St, then Queen St, and back around the cars on to the other side of the road. Some motorists look alarmed as the fighting melee of bodies pushes past. Others just shrug; it's another Saturday night.

This scene could have happened in any city centre in the country. Violence seems to flare up with little provocation, especially when fuelled by alcohol. A misplaced glance, the wrong word or a misinterpreted expression can start a fight.

While the reported rates of most kinds of crime are dropping, alcohol-related offending and violence is proving much harder to tackle for New Zealand police.

In a submission on the Auckland Council's latest alcohol policy, police said that while total crime was dropping significantly in Auckland, public-place violence was moving against the trend. People's perceptions of their own safety are also dropping.

The number of people getting so drunk they are a danger to themselves or others is increasing. Across Auckland in 2006, 4442 people were taken home or into custody because they were drunk enough to be a danger to themselves or someone else. By 2010, there were more than 5350.

Auckland police have been unable to make a dent in the roughly 70,000 alcohol-related callouts they receive every year; most other parts of the country are dealing with noticeable increases. In 12 months to June last year, there were 46,864 violent offences nationwide. Violent crime now makes up a larger share of police work - 12.8 per cent of all recorded crime. In 2003, violent crime accounted for 8.3 per cent of all recorded crime.

Inspector Gary Davey is Auckland crime-prevention manager. He's told his 16-year-old son what he should do to avoid becoming a victim of crime: not getting separated from friends, not walking around the city alone and not getting into the comatose state of several men we saw on Saturday night, leaning against buildings, asleep and vulnerable.

He knows the city's hotspots for drunken violence - around Fort Lane, K Rd, the alleys of High St and the pavement outside fast-food restaurants later in the night.

The presence of police doesn't make a difference when it comes to booze-fuelled fighting. "They don't care ... It happens right in front of you." It's often random, gratuitous violence. "You can just be a normal person walking down the street with your girlfriend and they'll punch you for fun."

He expects between 40 and 80 arrests on a Saturday night.

For many people, intoxicated acts of aggression have had devastating consequences. New Zealander Alex McEwen, 19, was left with head and spinal damage after being king-hit in Sydney in January. He faces months of rehabilitation.

Teenager Daniel Christie also died when he was punched - the 15th Australian fatality from a king-hit in seven years.

People have been killed by a single punch in this country, too. Steve Radnoty, 51, died after being punched in Dunedin's George St McDonald's. David Keith Mernin, 51, of Pakuranga, died after an altercation outside the Heading Home Bar in 2008. Just this week, naval rating Grenville David McFarland pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Tarun Asthana, 25, who was king-hit outside Britomart McDonald's at 4.50am on Saturday, November 2 last year.

24 hours on the street: 'Everyone wants to fight tonight'

Asthana's friend Sam Matthews called for something to be done to address the issue of violence in New Zealand: "Nothing will bring back Tarun but we can try and do our bit to make sure this doesn't keep happening the way it is."

That is the goal of a new campaign known as Just One Punch.

Dunedin constable Shelley Phair says a lot of people don't realise the impact of random acts of violence.

"I would go to work on a Friday or Saturday night and see fights happening again and again on our streets. It seemed that people had no idea that there could be serious consequences to their actions."

The campaign includes a DVD showing Steve Radnoty's wife Carol and offender Matthew Larson, the young man who killed him, talking about their experiences. Larson was sentenced to three years' prison.

Police say they are making progress. National crime-prevention manager Bruce Bird says the severity of callouts is dropping, partly because police have changed their approach.

There is now more focus on prevention than on picking up the pieces. "We're getting staff into the right places and targeting it with the right interventions."

Police are keen for individuals and licensed premises to take more responsibility for alcohol-related crime. "If you know someone has a violent disposition, you do something about it, don't let him carry on [drinking]."

Counties Manukau district crime-prevention manager Richard Middleton says police have also changed tack when it comes to domestic violence and are focusing on fixing underlying issues. "If we have to make an arrest, it's the last resort," he says.

So have they gone soft on violent offenders? They say no.

Middleton says it's impossible to predict the first time a crime happens at a location. But once there's a pattern, it's a lot easier. There have been only two domestic homicides in the last couple of years. "That's unheard of, considering our past."

Police have committed to reducing crime by 13 per cent from June 2008 to June this year. Counties Manukau is at a 17.5 per cent reduction. But Middleton says the Government "missed a beat" when it voted against restoring the alcohol age to 20.

He won't get any argument from health experts. Professor Jennie Connor, University of Otago's head of preventive and social medicine, says New Zealand's situation is abominable. "It demands action. We know a lot about how to reduce it and we're not doing it."

The answer, she says, is to reduce the frequency and severity of all heavy drinking. "Not just among 'bad people', we all have different ideas about who 'bad people' are. As a society, it's unacceptable to have a situation where probably half but at least a third of offending is alcohol-related."

Rebecca Williams, director of Alcohol Healthwatch, agrees there has been a lot of talk and little real action. There are more than 62,000 physical assaults and 10,000 sexual assaults in New Zealand every year where the perpetrator has been drinking, she says. "If we use the best strategies we can make a difference, but we're dibbling around in things that look good on paper but don't work."

Action on pricing, marketing and sponsorship would make a difference, she says.

The police have a saying: nothing good happens after 3am. That's when the worst assaults happen, the worst drink-drivers are on the road, and people who should have gone home are still wandering around the city centre.

Inspector Gary Davey stops a woman weaving unsteadily as she texts on her phone. He asks where her friends are and suggests it's not safe for her on her own. She responds aggressively, thinking he is telling her off. He brushes it off. That's what drunk people do, he says.

We pass a couple of men dressed in pink tutus, exiting a nightclub. Davey smiles: "I guess when you have muscles like that you think you can get away it." But then he shrugs.

"Someone will come along and assault him."

- Herald on Sunday

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