Outdoor activity camps in which at-risk youth learn about teamwork and good decision-making could be part of the solution to the Mid North's high youth crime rate, a police officer says.
A spike in youth offending - in particular the appearance of 18 young offenders on a single day in the Kaikohe Youth Court, 12 of whom were charged with aggravated robbery - has rung alarm bells in the justice system, with Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker saying he was "very concerned".
Senior Constable Rob Cameron, a Kerikeri-based Youth Aid officer, believes the youth camps he and other officers run through the police charity Blue Light could help tackle the problem in the long term.
The first camp, called Ko Wai Au? (Who Am I?), was held earlier this month at Lonsdale Park, near Matauri Bay.
Four youths, aged 11-13, had been chosen from each of the Kerikeri-Waitangi, Kawakawa-Moerewa, Kaikohe and Kaeo areas and teamed up with a police mentor from their area. Some had been chosen for their leadership potential and others because they were "at risk", though none had come to police attention for the wrong reasons.
They took part in outdoor activities such as waka ama and bush walking, and competed as teams in problem-solving challenges such as erecting a flagpole on an island using lashings they had been taught earlier in the day.
However, the real benefits came from extensive contact before and after the camp between the police officers involved, the 16 boys and their families. That contact took the form of mentoring, home visits and activities such as waka ama.
"If we hold four camps a year that would mean significant, positive police contact with 64 kids and their whanau every year," Mr Cameron said.
The three-day camp was run along military lines thanks to Constable Ihaka Lenden, a former Navy physical training instructor, with order, urgency, lots of push-ups and standing to attention.
"I thought that would go down like a cup of sick, but the kids loved it."
The final day featured a tough team challenge and an award ceremony with the boys' whanau present.
"The idea is to build relationships with police, to give these kids a skill set that lets them make the right sort of choices as they go through their teenage years. We see it as a positive thing we can do to try to counteract the spike in serious youth offending we've got in the Mid North, and prevent the all too easy slide into a life of crime."
Police had committed to providing staff and vehicles for the camps but Blue Light received no police funding. Instead, the officers ran a series of fundraisers at The Warehouse in Kaikohe and Kerikeri, making enough to pay for the first two camps.
The October 3-5 camp was run for $1300 with costs kept down by, for example, officers' partners doing the cooking. Blue Light camps in Auckland cost $500 per child, beyond the means of many Mid North families.
Blue Light members were working to find funding streams to allow the camps to continue.
Other staff involved in the camp were Constable Richard Avery (Kaeo), Community Constable Roger Dephoff (Kawakawa), Sergeant Robert Rakete (Mid North youth services) and Wally Te Huia (non-sworn, Kaikohe).
"All the guys doing this really believe in it," Mr Cameron said.
"Some have grown up with challenges themselves."