Editorial: Split in police duties will revive respect

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In 1992, a number of reasonable arguments were advanced for merging road-traffic officers and frontline police. A bureaucratic hierarchy was to be eliminated and fewer officers would be needed, while the increased visibility of a combined force promised improved road safety. Much of this came to pass but not without an unfortunate cost. As the police's priorities shifted, so, too, did their public standing. The Police Commissioner is, therefore, on solid ground when he suggests a refining of road-policing enforcement.

Howard Broad has been careful to stress that he does not advocate a return to the days of black-and-white traffic patrol cars administered by the Ministry of Transport. He wants control of road policing to remain with the police but to be carried out, in part, by officers with powers limited to that sphere.

It was not a good use of resources, he said, for a fully qualified officer to spend time operating a radar gun. That much is logical, especially as Mr Broad is also, quite reasonably, keen to make greater use of such technology in traffic policing.

In theory, police released from traffic duties would be able to devote more time to the likes of burglaries and assaults, the stuff of real crime in the public mind. But that will happen only if resourcing is provided for the new traffic enforcement officers.

It is important this happens, and that as many of these officers as possible are involved in day-to-day traffic policing, including drink-driving blitzes, warrant-of-fitness checks and suchlike, as well as the operation of radar guns.

That would remove the police from an area of activity that has proved detrimental to their image. Before 1992, normally law-abiding citizens generally saw them only when they were victims of crime. Since then, the contact has been much greater, often for what people saw as the heavy-handed application of the traffic rulebook for minor transgressions.

In large part, the police had no choice in this. Eleven years ago, as the road toll mounted, they were asked to supply evidence that demonstrated the priority being placed on traffic policing. An obvious response lay in the number of tickets issued to motorists. In time, this led to the controversy over ticket quotas, and allegations of revenue-gathering and unfair practice.

The drop in public esteem cannot be attributed solely to the police's assumption of traffic duties. The likes of the Louise Nicholas saga, and the fall-out from it, have played their part. But the change in policing wrought by the merger has undoubtedly altered perceptions. That is not a healthy situation.

Effective policing is underpinned by a social contract that requires the co-operation and help of law-abiding people. It also requires discretion in applying the law. If the police have not helped themselves by sometimes seeking out easy targets, successive governments' drive to lower the road toll has left little room for such discretion.

A return to the pre-1992 situation, by separating road-traffic officers from frontline police, would be too costly, especially at a time of straitened financial circumstance. Additionally, much of the road-policing knowledge and skills acquired over the past 17 years would no longer be employed. That accumulated wisdom has been used to achieve an impressive reduction in the road toll.

The problem is the low-tolerance approach used in this process. Anything that frontline police can do to put distance between themselves and the special demands of traffic policing will be worthwhile. Respect and support for the police can increase only when they are protecting the public, not getting backs up.

- NZ Herald

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