Top cop full force in battle zone

By Chloe Johnson

Steve Kehoe wants his office to think about preventing crime rather than focusing on prosecutions. Photo / Janna Dixon
Steve Kehoe wants his office to think about preventing crime rather than focusing on prosecutions. Photo / Janna Dixon

The new police area commander for one of our most crime-ridden areas knows what it's like to be outnumbered by drunk and violent thugs.

As Maggie, the owner of a local fish and chip shop, stumbles drunkenly across a dangerous motorway in the early hours of the morning, a police officer stops and leaps out to help her to safety.

Out of nowhere, a beer bottle comes flying.

It has been thrown from the pub across the road, where 40 drunk patrons are standing yelling abuse at the police officer.

"They thought I was arresting her," says Steve Kehoe.

It's 1.30am and the patrons have been drinking illegally for more than two hours since the pub officially closed. A group of them close on Kehoe, who is working solo with little protective gear, and lay into him, punching, kicking.

"I tried tackling two or three of them," he says. "If I could tackle a few I could maintain my position until back-up arrived, but it turned into a free for all." But the back-up takes too long to arrive, and Kehoe is left alone on the side of the road with a broken nose and injuries to his back, neck and groin.

That was 22 years ago in Liverpool, England, but it remains his scariest experience in his long years of policing.

"It was one of those unexpected moments. Once the calls went out and our colleague started coming, you could hear the sirens, they all legged it and left us on the road."

Why does he tell this story? Because we asked.

Why does it matter? Because Kehoe this year took charge of Auckland's most beleaguered police force - the cops who have got the least back-up when they get in trouble. And he understands just how they feel.

* * *

Kehoe sits back contentedly in one of his office chairs, legs crossed. He has been wearing the Waitakere area commander's boots for only six months but looks relaxed and quietly confident.

A Pacific Island lei hangs from the whiteboard, injecting lipstick pinks and sorbet orange colours into an otherwise mundane office.

But being at the top isn't as cushy as the office chair he moulds into.

Predecessor Gary Davey knew this all too well after stepping down last year because of damning workplace survey results. Davey had been lauded for his handling of the search for Aisling Symes, the 2-year old girl whose body was eventually found down a drain. But the honeymoon was shortlived amid allegations of brutality against four Waitakere police officers, and the discovery that police initially botched the search for little Aisling.

Finally, the workplace survey revealed nearly a third of Waitakere officers were "not engaged" in their work. The nationwide survey showed Waitakere had one of the worst staff-engagement results in the country.

As Kehoe steps into Davey's boots, Waitakere Police District has the highest ratio of crime per police officer in the Auckland region - 71 recorded incidents for each officer compared with 61 in Auckland City and 39 in Counties Manukau.

The Englishman is a likeable chap with short mousy brown hair swiped to the side. His Scouse accent is strong but his voice is soft.

His pale blue police shirt and the three pips on his shoulders shows he has been in the force for some time, but he retains a touch of informality - the navy blue tie is left hanging in his office closet.

Unfortunately for Kehoe, his pleasant manner won't reduce crime or lift the spirits of officers who are feeling detached from their work. And that's why he's promising more.

* * *

Twenty years of experience policing in the United Kingdom, alongside his three brothers who are also officers, indicates Kehoe probably has some tricks up his sleeve - albeit nothing too fancy.

Kehoe raises an eyebrow when confronted about the high number of crimes - 19,513 recorded incidents in the past year - compared with the number of staff. Waitakere has only 274 police and non-sworn staff.

Unsurprisingly, he's not risking the wrath of his superiors by calling publicly for more staff. He's not even asking his staff to work harder, he says. He just wants them to work smarter.

"More staff would help, obviously, but I'm not shouting for more staff," Kehoe says. "I want to make sure my processes are sound and staff are deployed effectively."

He says the answer lies in the national prevention strategy that targets prolific offenders and repeat victims. "A very small proportion of offenders commit a very high proportion of crime," he says.

"Ten per cent of offenders commit about 60 per cent of crimes, and a very small minority of victims account for a very high proportion of victimisation. If we can address prolific offenders and repeat victims then we should see a significant reduction of crime."

In the past, officers have measured their success on high prosecution rates - which means prosecuting a crime that has already been committed.

Kehoe wants his office to think about preventing crime rather than reacting to incidents. "It is not about going out and locking them up, it is about reducing criminal activity."

Behind him are diagrams and solutions scribbled on a whiteboard, creating the impression of being in a maths class. But he insists the diagrams work - and offers a sneak peak of unreleased crime statistics that show a squiggly downhill line since his appointment at the end of last year.

"We have a bright future," he says. "I'm happy to be judged at the end of the year and am confident we have improved."

- Herald on Sunday

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