Sunday Insight: Crimes, cops and cuddles

By Joanne Carroll

A Neighbourhood Policing Team walks the beat around Otahuhu. Photo / Michael Craig
A Neighbourhood Policing Team walks the beat around Otahuhu. Photo / Michael Craig

On a sunny Thursday in Otahuhu, Sergeant Phil Weaver is on his way to the Otahuhu markets. He stops to talk to Jimmy Tan, who stands in his shop doorway surrounded by a selection of umbrellas, mats, shoes and bags.

A shoeless, toothless woman sitting nearby tells Weaver he's a "nice policeman" after he gives her a wave and wishes her good morning.

When Weaver and his team of six constables in the Otahuhu West Neighbourhood Policing Team go to the markets, people greet them by name.

It might seem an odd way to spend police time in a district where they are stretched, but engaging with the community is the most important part of the job.

Last year, recorded crime in New Zealand dropped 4.8 per cent to its lowest level in 15 years. Crime rates are on track to meet the target of a 13 per cent reduction from 2011 to 2015.

The "Prevention First" strategy, aimed at increasing visibility in the community and reducing court, led to the creation of the first Neighbourhood Policing Teams in 2010.

Now there are 33 teams nationwide in poor areas with lots of young people.

These are already the areas where the demand is highest for police presence, driven by family and other violence, burglaries, other dishonesty crimes, drug offences and youth crime.

The Counties Manukau district has 12 teams - the highest concentration - and people here say they are beginning to feel safer on the streets and in their homes. Prime Minister John Key told the Herald on Sunday he is delighted with the difference the 33 teams have made with limited resources.

"If you always do what you always do, you will always get what you always get - and in New Zealand's case, it was rapidly increasing crime rates, particularly in the hot spots."

Prevention also saves the taxpayer money by reducing cases clogging the courts.

"By engaging with the community, using technology and taking preventive action they can reduce crime and have more time to spend on more issues."

Riki Mafi was 17 when he caught in the crossfire of a teenage gang war more reminiscent of the Bronx than South Auckland. He was walking to a taxi stand in Otara, in September 2006, when he was beaten to the ground with a baseball bat by a man he'd never met before. It was 2006, and Counties Manukau was at war: 15 murders in the district and the police seemed helpless.

Riki had been charged with minor property damage and was on a curfew at the time he was murdered. He was bashed with the bat by a group of men chasing some other gang members. Jeffrey Alailima Key hit Riki so hard that he felled him. He struck another blow while Riki was on the ground before he was pulled away. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 12 years.

Judge Roy Wade said Riki's death was part of an "epidemic of needless violence" on the streets of South Auckland as groups of young men fought.

The teenager was caught by a wave of murders in a district where gang violence was spiralling out of control. It was the sixth homicide inquiry in just three months.

Father-of-three Faafetai Lafolua, 24, was dragged to his death underneath a car in a turf war; Liam Ashley was fatally beaten in a prison van; Haruru Pekepo was shot in Otahuhu; Pilikitisua Neru was attacked and killed during a church service; Kelly Lawrence, 18, was stabbed to death outside a party in Manurewa; the Kahui twins were battered to death.

The Counties Manukau police had to bring in detectives from other districts to help.

The Clark Government poured fresh-faced young police recruits into Counties Manukau and invested $10 million over four years to fund youth workers and family services.

By 2010, the National-led Government had another 300 cops on the beat. Now, 1055 sworn officers police a population of 520,040. It's the highest saturation of police anywhere in the country, but it's not just the numbers that are making a difference. It's what they're doing. No longer are the police of South Auckland bystanders to the street gangs.

Officially, the Otahuhu West Neighbourhood Policing team engages with their community to create a safe and secure neighbourhood, so that people to have ownership, control and a sense of pride in their community. Unofficially, it means uniformed officers greeting locals with hugs as well as handshakes.

Based in the new $8.6 million facility opened by Police Minister Anne Tolley in May, the team want to increase trust and confidence in police by meeting as many people as possible and being a visible and friendly presence on the streets.

Tania Pahulu has been on the team for a year and she knows many of the market shoppers and stallholders by name. She greets some with a handshake, others with a hug.

"This is why I became a police officer," she says.

"On the front line you just go from job to job. You arrest people, put them through the process and never see them again. In neighbourhood policing you get to know people and help them by preventing crime in the first place. You get young people involved and change people's negative perception of the police."

Of the seven officers in the team, four are Pacific Islanders - reflecting Otahuhu's 49 per cent PI population. Pahulu is Tongan; Matt Adam is a stocky Samoan who joined the team this year. Their boss, Sgt Weaver, 34, spent 10 years in frontline policing.

"I never thought I'd live in Auckland but now I couldn't imagine living anywhere else. The policing here is something different, it's exciting and keeps you challenged," he says.

More than 40 per cent of crime in the district is property-related - a total of 22,188 offences last year. So the team struck up a rapport with secondhand dealers, encouraging them to report suspicious sellers.

Meanwhile, Constable Patrick Knight worked with local businesses to provide free internet access for people to log their electronic goods' serial numbers at snap.org.nz.

Snap stickers on items warn potential burglars that the valuables might be harder to sell.

Constantly called out to fights at the area's boarding houses, the team met with the residents and managers to work on solutions. A working group tidied up properties and talked to residents with problems such as alcohol dependence about seeking help.

They did the same with a well-known party house, where drunken fights and even serious assaults were common. Pahulu says they put ownership of the problem on the youngsters.

"We say, look we're sick of being called out here and you're sick of seeing us so what are we going to do about it?"

The youngsters cleaned up the property and some even enrolled in courses after advice from the constables.

"We went out and visited one young guy at home and you could see he had been having problems at home," Weaver explains.

"His mum told us she was trying to be a better parent. So we talked to her and helped refer her to agencies which could help."

Now the police get hardly any emergency calls from boarding houses and none from the reformed party house.

They may be cuddly cops - but don't be fooled: they respond to crime like other frontline officers - it's just they sometimes get the tipoff from people they know on the streets before they hear from the police 111 comms operator.

Weaver uses the time on patrol to get to know young people. Once they get to know the police officers, they are more likely to give them information about crimes - sometimes even before they happen.

"If they tell me they want to give the intel anonymously they know they can trust me."

Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Bush, who started the teams in Counties Manukau, says early signs are that dramatic crime reduction rates have been recorded in some areas. Last year, total crime was down 2.8 per cent in Counties Manukau. But if you break the statistics down by crime and by area, even more startling improvements emerge.

Homicide and related offences were down a whopping 41 per cent. Abduction and harassment were down 18.5, and acts causing injury were down 10. On the south side, property damage was down 21.7 per cent, robbery down 25.8, unlawful entry down 22.4 and fraud down 38.3. And it's not just the south.

In Auckland City, particularly in the western suburbs, there have been significant drops in burglaries, street disorder and violent offending, in just the past three months.

Jimmy Tan's niece Lisa says groups of young men would always be lurking around their variety store, asking for money or trying to steal from the shops. Now she only gets the odd schoolboy trying to steal socks.

"I tell them don't take it, I'll give it to you for free," she laughs.

"They are taking socks! I know the parents around here don't have much money and the boys want socks for school so I give them a pair. I tell them the police are just around the corner so don't steal."

Mangere-Otahuhu Local Board chairman Leau Peter Skelton has noticed more families and older people using the district's parks because they know the team do regular patrols of the area.

"The kids are getting involved in positive activities. They are more aware of how to protect themselves from being a victim because of the education they get from police in schools and in the neighbourhood."

Melissa Martin, the Counties Manukau East co-ordinator of Victim Support, says she has seen a drop in family violence since the Neighbourhood Policing Team has been in operation in her area.

"We used to be seeing the same families having incidents week after week after week. The incidents would escalate in frequency and seriousness but now we are seeing a turnaround. Prevention is a huge part of what the police are doing now and it is working,"
she says.

The neighbourhood policing team has the time to do follow-up visits with the family up to once a week to keep them engaged and to offer support. They don't just talk to the victim - they talk to the offender and the children as well.

"Most people only see the police after an incident has happened and they usually do not react well to the police at the door," Martin says.

"But if they are used to the police coming around and seeing them in a different light it makes a huge difference."

The teams will be in each area for between three to five years. Police Minister Anne Tolley says the timeline is open for review but she's confident five years is enough time for solutions to be found.

"It's about giving tools to the communities so they can be confident in how to solve their own issues," she argues.

"I am confident we can put measures in place to ensure that the community will not suffer when the teams move on to other vulnerable areas."

Otahuhu town manager Richette Rodger is not so sure. She fears the community will go backwards when they leave.

"We love our neighbourhood policing team and will do anything to keep them," she says.

"We can't afford to lose them."

Rodger says her tenant in Otahuhu had his car stolen.

"English is not his first language and he was a bit scared about going to the police," she says.

"So I called the team and Matt, Andrew, Tania and Inoke came around in their van and talked to him and helped him report the crime and get a police report so he could give it to his insurance company."

The increased police presence makes residents feel safer doing their shopping, and the officers do daily drive-arounds looking for children wagging school. They're also visible: they travel in a people-mover, not a squad car.

"We now know who to call if we see petty crime," Rodger says, "stuff that you would question calling 111 for, we can pick up the phone and one of the team comes down straight away and helps out.

"They have become our friends."

- Herald on Sunday

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