Peter Jackson: 'Ten homicides in and around Kaitaia in seven years is an appalling statistic'

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Peter Jackson, editor, The Northland Age
Peter Jackson, editor, The Northland Age

Take care out there

Many years ago a man died at a party at Awanui.

It turned out that he had been involved in a fight and had fallen down some stairs, but initially his death was treated as a homicide. For weeks Kaitaia talked about nothing else. Violent death was a new phenomenon, one that gripped people's imagination, but wasn't taken as a sign that a new criminal era had dawned.

The same can hardly be said today. Kaitaia's senior police officer was quoted last week as saying that his staff had investigated 10 homicides since he arrived in the Far North seven years before.

That included the death of a 29-year-old man at a house in Pukepoto Rd on July 23, one of three knife attacks in Kaitaia in a week.

So far this year has produced two alleged murders in Kaitaia, one probable murder (of a man who has disappeared and is believed by police to have been the victim of foul play) and what is being prosecuted as an attempted murder.

A man has been jailed for manslaughter after a fatal stabbing just outside the town in April last year.

Senior Sergeant Geoff Ryan has rightly pointed to all that as indicative of the level of violence that now exists in and around Kaitaia, but it is not so easy to identify what is behind it.

It can't be laid solely at the door of unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, all of which have been facts of life in the North for 30 years or more.

It is more likely evidence of a fundamental breakdown in society, a trend that has so far elicited not one word of official concern, let alone a response; a collapse that has been in the making for a couple of generations.

Almost 40 years ago, Kaitaia's then senior police officer, Bruce Baker, told the writer that the day was coming when a burglar was going to die.

The burglary rate then was nothing like it is now, and Kaitaia had few of the symptoms of social decay that are now so evident, but he claimed that the majority of burglars, most of them young, had taken to arming themselves before they went about their business.

He feared it was only a matter of time before an intruder used a weapon when confronted by an angry victim, or the victim retaliated with deadly force.

His prediction hasn't quite come true, in that it isn't burglars or their victims who are losing their lives, but he would probably not be surprised by the increasing homicide rate.

We don't yet know the circumstances that led to the death in Pukepoto Rd or what happened on July 19 to put a 22-year-old man in hospital with serious injuries after he was stabbed at an address in Matthews' Ave. Police so far are saying only that there had been an altercation between the victim and an offender who had earlier tried to break into a vehicle. At the time of writing that offender had yet to be identified.

Allowing for the lack of information available, it would seem that the majority of the violent deaths of recent times involve some form of gang dispute or, more alarmingly, have been the result of an altercation that might once have resulted in the trading of blows.

On July 22, a man who has been charged with injuring with intent, allegedly settled an argument with a 33-year-old woman by stabbing her in the face with a knife. Her wounds were not life-threatening - police described them as minor cuts - but again we have someone using a weapon in circumstances that would once have been inconceivable.

And minor as her injuries might have been, it is not difficult to imagine an attack involving stabs to the jaw having a fatal outcome.

It is some consolation, perhaps, that the Police Minister is not claiming, as she and her predecessors have done in the past, that crime is reducing, although the wringing of hands that accompanied last month's annual statistics was largely prompted by the inescapable conclusion that burglars continue to make hay while the sun shines from one end of the country to the other.

Burglary is a serious offence in terms of the effect it has on victims and the potential for escalation to violence. Undertakings by the police to devote more resources to dealing with the burglary problem are welcome, if a little tardy. But the homicide rate must be of greater concern, even if it has yet to generate any comment at senior police or political levels.

Ten homicides in and around Kaitaia in seven years is an appalling statistic. Three stabbings in a week, one of them fatal and the others potentially so, is even worse, but so far everyone seems content to let the local police deal with a trend that deserves much greater attention. In fact it seems that we are becoming inured to this new level of violence. The Pukepoto Rd stabbing didn't even make TV One's evening news. Surely we have not reached the point, as in the United States, where a homicide needs something more than the fact that a person has died to be newsworthy?

The writer hasn't seen the homicide figure for the 12 months to July, but the public perception that the murder rate is rising has been dismissed by politicians over recent years on the basis of deaths per 100,000 population not increasing significantly, if at all. Kaitaia might be excused for rejecting any such suggestion now. However murder rates might be interpreted or explained away, the town is demonstrably more violent now than it has ever been in the past, and the least that police and politicians can do is acknowledge that.

Don't blame the police though. Certainly the force in Kaitaia has invested a great deal of time and energy to reducing crime, particularly violence, and last week's description of Ryan being "deeply saddened" by the latest stabbing death was no exaggeration.

Ryan, and his staff, do not fit the probably common perception of New Zealand police officers. They genuinely care about the victims they deal with, and when he says he is deeply saddened, he can be believed. These are not nine-to-fivers, but men and women who are doing their best to make their community safer. That they appear to be failing miserably is not their fault.

Nor is their failure to curb violent crime unique to their community. People are dying violent deaths in this country on a seemingly daily basis, while politicians remain fixated on Auckland's housing crisis and now a definition of poverty that includes lack of a phone, a car or family holidays.

Ryan has long argued, quite rightly, that the community can reduce crime by intervening, but the chances of that happening become less likely every time someone is attacked. Kaitaia folk must be close to reaching the point where all but the bravest will look the other way, and who can blame them?

The sole consolation for most of us, perhaps, is that we do not move in the circles where people carry knives and are not averse to using them, but that is hardly the point, or grounds for complacency.

Violent death could be coming to a family near you any day now, and officially, it seems, we don't even see a problem.

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