AN APPROACH to policing where officers leave their uniforms at home and spend their time talking to people instead of laying down the law has been credited with helping to keep Waitangi Day peaceful.

No one was arrested and only two people were trespassed from the Treaty Grounds this year, making it one of the best-behaved commemorations to date. A group of Tribesmen who had been posturing outside the marae campground left without incident when asked to do so.

While the police had a big presence, with more than 100 officers on duty over four days of events, it was the 33 non-uniformed iwi liaison officers (ILOs) who defused any trouble before it happened.

Members wear a polo shirt, shorts and sneakers, while headwear ranges from floppy hats to flax potae. The only things that give them away as police are the logo on their shirts, an ID card and an earpiece.

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"We make no bones of the fact we work for the police but we don't wear a police uniform which is a barrier for a lot of people," said Senior Sergeant Pat Davis, second in charge of the ILO force.

"We want to break down those barriers, so people see us as Maori who happen to be policemen."

On February 4 and 5, when visitors were welcomed on to Te Tii Marae, the ILOs' main job was to work alongside the marae's Whanau Safety Team and the Maori Wardens. Uniformed police don't go on to the marae grounds.

PROTESTER: Police iwi liaison officers talk to a protester called Te Oneone who was determined to serve documents on the governor-general. PHOTO/PETER DE GRAAF
PROTESTER: Police iwi liaison officers talk to a protester called Te Oneone who was determined to serve documents on the governor-general. PHOTO/PETER DE GRAAF

A few people - including a heavily-tattooed protester who was determined to serve documents on the governor-general - were kept off the marae grounds while other potential trouble-makers were engaged in discussion.

"We get alongside those who have a personal axe to grind with various parts of the establishment, and make sure they know we're there to keep everyone safe."

Most people responded favourably, Mr Davis said.

"They may not change their minds but they feel like they've had their say. Everyone is here for a different reason but they're all bound by the Treaty."

The ILOs' approach is sometimes dubbed "Northland-style policing", which is less confrontational than the way police operate in the big cities.

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"We're trying to bring in this form of policing every day. It's about engaging with people rather than resorting to the law, which is left as a last resort. Police exist through the consent of the people and it's by engaging with people that we continue to gain their confidence. That makes policing by consent easier."

Constable Maurice Cooper, from Moerewa, has been with the police for 10 years and a part-time ILO for five. He found working with his own people rewarding and said they responded differently when he was out of uniform.

"It gives us an opportunity to police our own people and keep them safe in the style we know best, the Northland style of policing. It allows us to get in and talk to people and at the end of the day, make sure their Waitangi experience is a happy one."

Mr Davis said most, but not all, ILOs were Maori. Their ranks included Samoans, Tongans and Pakeha. For the Maori officers local whakapapa was a bonus but not essential.

The two things they all had in common was that they did their regular police work in the North and they were all "people people".

Another reason for the ILOs' big presence last weekend was recruitment, with all major political parties committing to a significant boost in police numbers. With tens of thousands of people visiting Waitangi, Mr Davis said it was a great place to start looking for new staff.

The head of the ILO force, Inspector Riki Whiu, said the goal was to change mindsets of both the public and the police by engaging with people around the mantra of manaakitanga (looking after others).

The first ILO in Northland was his late uncle Paddy Whiu; now Northland had four fulltime ILOs covering Whangarei, Kaipara, the Mid and Far North. The other ILOs were drawn from every branch of the police during events such as Waitangi Day and some Treaty hearings, where officers could upskill themselves in history as well as keeping the peace.

"Waitangi gives us a chance to celebrate with our own people, so they get to see their sons, daughters, nephews and nieces working in an environment that's culturally acceptable.

"Police are involved in a lot of areas but we often only noticed in law enforcement. At Waitangi we can be sitting on the taumata (speakers' bench) or steering a waka. We hope people see this side of us, and the effort and commitment we're making."