Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Zapping youngsters a step too far

Crackdown on crime catching people with a desire for nothing more than a romantic stroll in the park.

If you can hear the high frequency blasts you'll want to go somewhere else. Photo / Getty Images
If you can hear the high frequency blasts you'll want to go somewhere else. Photo / Getty Images

When former Waitakere City mayor Bob Harvey piped classical music into the shiny new Henderson railway station to deter young loiterers, it seemed a rather inspired and harmless approach to a perennial problem. After all, being assailed by a stream of low-fi Vivaldi does no lasting harm to anyone, except, perhaps, to the street cred of any teenager caught enjoying it.

But a little further north, in the boredom that goes by the name Whangaparaoa, the elders have turned this light-hearted tool into an unfriendly noise-ray weapon aimed at their own children.

Egged on by three constables who call themselves the Rodney Problem Solving Team and have teamed up with the commercial company selling the Mosquito Anti-Vandal System, the locals are erecting a gauntlet of noise-making machines to "deter loitering and associated petty crime" along what the police rather grandly call the Whangaparaoa Crime Corridor.

The Mosquito alarm emits an irritating high-pitched screech that according to the Welsh designers, can only be heard by those under the age of 25. It's designed to perform like the ultra-sound devices being marketed to drive rats, cockroaches and other vermin from your house. But employing the same method to herd the local kids away from the places where they like to congregate seems a step too far.

At the instigation of the local police, Whangaparaoa Primary School installed three of the alarms at a cost of more than $5000 after several security cameras disappeared. Principal Steve Collins told the local paper parts of his school are now no longer considered "suitable gathering areas" and he is "absolutely delighted" with the effectiveness of the devices.

So are the police, who claim the amount of "anti-social behaviour" and/or "low level" crime has dropped. As a result, Auckland Council, through its Hibiscus and Bays Local Board, is funding the installation of these anti-child devices along the "crime corridor" that takes in the primary and secondary school grounds, along with Edith Hopper Park, Stanmore Bay Skate Park, and parts of the local football club and Stanmore Bay Beach.

The police will use them to help combat tagging, liquor ban breaches, wilful damage, minor assaults and low-level drug dealing during the problem hours of 10pm to 3am, Thursday to Sunday. It's part of a crime crackdown that includes removing trees that might provide cover for vandals and burglars, and the installation of sensor lighting.

The police argue the Mosquito devices are only switched on in "unsociable hours" and therefore don't affect other people's enjoyment of public spaces. But these days, 10pm is far from an unsociable hour, so why should the innocent under-25s with nothing but a desire for a romantic stroll in the park, be indiscriminately driven out for nothing more than the crime of having acute hearing?

In their presentation to the local board, the police and SLS Security, the sales agents for Mosquito, submitted a legal opinion claiming the device was not in breach of the Human Rights Act 1998. It might not be, but as an English act, that's rather irrelevant to New Zealand. The opinion was from Hewitsons Solicitors, a firm of English lawyers based in Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Northampton.

There's no mention in the legal opinion that in 2008, then Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, called for them to be banned, warning "these devices are indiscriminate and target all children and young people, including babies, regardless of whether they are behaving or misbehaving". He said: "The use of measures such as these is simply demonising children and young people, creating a dangerous and widening divide between the young and the old."

Also, locally, they're only being used to target our young, but the latest models have two settings, the 17.5kHz wave band aimed at the young and an 8kHz setting that can be heard by everyone. In the United States, this setting is used to disperse the homeless and beggars.

The Liverpool police have earned an award for innovation by attaching them to a vehicle in order to herd young troublemakers. The machines have four loudness settings, the top is an ear splitting 104 decibels, the normal allegedly a loud 75 decibels. Auckland Council bylaws state that "excessive noise is any noise that is under human control and of such a nature as to unreasonably interfere with the peace, comfort and convenience of any person".

Perhaps it's time to say enough.

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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