Police in Northland say their blue line is thinning after more than 40 officers left the district in the first nine months of this year.
Departing police described a desire to find greener grass as intense workloads and too few resources burdened not only themselves but their families too.
Northland’s top cop acknowledged staff’s concerns and the rising demand they faced but says policing in the region is at a turning point that would ideally make it a recruitment drawcard.
Official information obtained by the Advocate showed between January and September this year, 14 of the 405 sworn officers on average resigned and 27 transferred to another police district. As of September 29, there were 35 vacancies for constabulary staff in Northland.
One officer said they decided to leave because they were tired of missing family events, seeing their loved ones worried, and the “crushing” demands of the job.
The Advocate is aware of police who have left law enforcement entirely and sought a career in a less stressful environment. Some have turned to forestry work.
Relieving Northland District Commander Inspector Dion Bennett said the pace at which police were leaving Northland was in line with what had been seen nationally.
A New Zealand police spokesperson said in the last year Northland constabulary staff have had an attrition rate of 5 per cent which was within the “normal range” for the police’s constabulary workforce and was “amongst the lowest of any large employer in the country”.
However, one of the challenges NZ Police said they faced is that its attrition rate has been consistently low for such a long period of time and has led to an ageing workforce. Over the last decade, the number of constables in Northland older than 55 has increased from 18 to 60.
They said while it means there is more experience in the ranks, eventually all employees will leave NZ Police which may result in more attrition over time.
On the flip side, 13 new recruits had been allocated to Northland and 21 officers were transferred to the region.
But an officer told the Advocate they are losing experienced staff who play a key role in curbing and responding to serious crime, and most notably are hard to replace.
“Then it’s left to the rest of us, who already feel exhausted most days on the job, to pick up the load.”
Bennett said it was “always difficult” when experienced officers left.
He did not know the reasons behind each decision but said that the careers of experienced officers ran a natural lifespan.
“This is a difficult job. There comes a point in time where you want a change. You’ve served your community, you’ve done your part keeping New Zealanders safe, keeping Northlanders safe.”
The struggle to recruit experienced staff appears to be felt at the region’s helm. Former Northland District Commander Superintendent Tony Hill left the region’s top job in June to lead Christchurch police and is yet to be permanently replaced.
It is the longest a district commander position has been advertised in New Zealand since records began in April 2017. Before then, Northland was still the record holder but it was a humble 15-day stretch by comparison.
However, a NZ Police spokesperson said they were confident they would be able to appoint a “good quality district commander” to the position.
The number of police officers was potentially more keenly felt as the demand for service has increased.
Bennett said the ability of police to respond to that rise has become more “hectic”.
“The role is a lot more time consuming.”
He gave the example of a frontline officer, who faced “consistent and constant” demand from the beginning to the end of their shift.
“Our people work hard and so it’s only natural that they do get tired and weary and that they need to look after themselves. We need to support them in that.”
But doing so could be challenging when there are several vacancies such as Northland has, Bennett said.
“We’ve heard our people’s concerns and we’re addressing them.”
The police district is at a turning point which ideally would make it a drawcard for new and experienced officers.
Bennett said a five-year focus programme, called Northland 2028, had been created. It was partly in response to a survey into workplace culture and partly due to some performance data.
Earlier this year, Northland police were found to have the lowest level of satisfaction in the force when it came to workplace culture. Business leadership experts were brought in to work with the police district’s senior leadership to improve workplace conditions. They have since left.
“We’ve had those honest conversations,” Bennett said. “We’ve learnt our lessons and Northland 2028 now provides us the focus and direction so that we can move on with some precision.”
The plan homes in on three key work streams: culture, leadership and deployment.
“Our focus is on building an ideal police district – to grow great leaders and to ensure our service delivery is the best it can be.”
The programme involved re-establishing a full-time recruitment officer.
“When we can fill the gaps that we have, we know that we’ll ease the burden on our people on the front lines.”
A key to Northland 2028′s hoped success would be that the programme is peer-driven.
The district’s leadership team has been widened to include inspectors and senior sergeants from around Northland – a move expected to raise morale.
Bennett explained that the programme had been positively received by staff, who expressed enthusiasm for the change.
“Any change takes time, but we’ve taken significant steps.”
Karina Cooper is news director and covers breaking and general news for the Advocate. She has a special interest in getting to the heart of a story.