Editorial: Keeping mum on crime won't make it stop

Photo / Janna Dixon
Photo / Janna Dixon

Crime, what crime? That was the legitimate, if sarcastic, reaction of the Gisborne Herald newspaper when its local police commander decided to hold back information on crime in the area in a bid to "make people feel safer". It neatly mocked an illogical policy which deserves all the criticism it will continue to get.

The police will no longer tell the community - through the media - of the overall incidence of crime, supposedly bringing Gisborne into line with the rest of the country. While the public might not demand knowledge of every instance of street disorder or vandalism or unsavoury behaviour, it is important that the judgment on who gets to know what is not the sole preserve of a busy policeman overseeing a station. People in Gisborne and other close-knit towns and suburbs are keenly interested in the trends of so-called low-level crime such as burglaries, boy-racers and general menace on the streets.

It could be argued, as the Media Freedom Committee which represents editors and news directors of all major news outlets does, that the police should routinely be providing more information and data on local crime, not less, to the public.

Knowing what is happening in your community does not necessarily make you feel unsafe; it can be the reverse in that being forewarned is being forearmed.

What is more concerning, though, is the Gisborne police attitude that what the public doesn't know can't hurt them, that publicity about crime can make a community less secure. It is wholly misguided. People will feel safer in their homes and on the streets once the crime rate is reduced and the police "clearance" rate of crime improves with more lawbreakers caught and prosecuted. As it happens Gisborne's crime rates are not exemplars of modern policing. The news on serious and violent crime is worse there than for the rest of the country as a whole.

Suppressing the information available to the public is the last refuge of policy failure. The Gisborne Herald editor, Jeremy Muir, views the unilateral restriction on crime news as straight out of "the communist manual". A South African New Zealander learning of the policy remarked that that was how things used to be in that troubled land. "They never told us what was happening."

Police national headquarters first tried to say the Gisborne move was isolated and would not spread to other parts of the country, then did an about-turn to say Gisborne was in fact coming into line with other districts. Technology allowed the police to provide information to the media on new channels, more and better information would be available than ever before. And so on, and so on. The press statement on the matter struggled to keep a straight face.

Try telling the benefits of restricted information to the media - and by extension the public - in Gisborne, where several matters of importance have occurred and never seen the light of day since the policy change. People cannot be better served by less information being provided on matters of public interest. And it is not for the police to determine what is and isn't in the public interest.

The unedifying, regressive Gisborne experience became public just as the Police Minister Judith Collins implied that media reporting on the policies and behaviours of the police had contributed to a falling respect for the constabulary. She is in danger of exhibiting Stockholm Syndrome, coming under the influence of those who draft up her arguments.

For how else to explain such absurdity: because people learn more about the documented wrongs or poor culture of the police they lose respect for those involved - but that is somehow the fault of the messenger.

- NZ Herald

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