Some frontline police have been told to “consider necessity of arrests” in some circumstances because one of the country’s largest prisons is nearly full.
The email, seen by the Herald on Sunday, was sent to staff in Wellington on Friday.
Titled “custody of remand detainees” the email from a senior sergeant says due to Rimutaka Prison being at “near maximum occupancy”, the District Custody Unit (DCU) would begin caring for the overflow of Corrections remand detainees when required.
It warns that: “Repeat breach of bail and warrant offenders may be remanded in Police custody for a prolonged period. Arresting officers should consider this before making an arrest.”
The directive has confused some officers and been slammed by National - and will be a headache for new Police Minister Ginny Andersen who is less than four weeks into the job. Law and order is shaping up as an election year battleground - and as Labour tries to deflect criticism it is soft on crime.
The email to officers said that approval from the unit sergeant was also required and arresting officers were told to call before transporting detainees.
DCU section staff would care for the remand detainees and the District Command Centre would ask area public safety teams to help run overnight arrest hearings in the Porirua, Hutt Valley and Wellington District Courts.”
The arrangement would be in place until further notice, the email said.
A police spokesperson indicated it was a standard practice to consider whether a person found to be in breach of bail or warrant conditions had to be taken into custody.
“As part of their decision-making process, officers are required to consider the seriousness and consequences of the breach, including if it may result in a period of detention that is not commensurate with the breach,” the spokesperson said.
“For example, a person arrested for a minor breach of bail on a Saturday afternoon would need to be held in custody over the weekend, until they could appear in court on Monday.”
President of the NZ Police Association Chris Cahill told Newstalk ZB this afternoon he can understand why a senior sergeant would not want his cells getting filled up with people who have breached bail, but said the situation is far from ideal.
He said the practice of imprisoning those who have breached bail has changed in recent years.
“It used to be that you tend to just lock up and let the courts decide,” Cahill said.
“But the practicality of that changed and now they’ll look at the circumstances, say, look, if you’ve got a serious or a violent offender that’s breached a bail, I think you can be confident they will still be arrested and kept in custody court.”
“But the more minor offences driving off or minor thefts, things like that where they’ve breached a curfew or something like that, they likely to have been arrested even without this email going out.”
He, however, also said the email was confusing, but said the real issue is that police stations are not the place to hold prisoners.
“We’ve always objected to remand prisoners being held in police cells and it’s only got worse with the state of our police cells,” Cahill said.
“Many of them aren’t suitable for long-term detention of prisoners.
“They’re really what, what I would call holding cell, keeping them to court the next morning or in the worst case scenario from a Saturday to a Monday and the idea of having my own prisoners there for a longer period, it’s just not appropriate.”
Brigid Kean, acting Deputy National Commissioner at Corrections, said public safety is Corrections’ top priority and there is enough capacity to manage anyone Police decide should be remanded in custody.
“We manage all prisoners, including those who have been newly received, across a network of 18 prisons. There is capacity at Rimutaka Prison if required,” Kean said.
A similar issue presented with some public holidays, where someone arrested over a holiday break for a minor bail breach could be required to be in custody for two or three days before appearing in court, the spokesperson said.
”This does not mean no action is taken in relation to a breach of bail or warrant conditions – all breaches are recorded and included in information presented to the Court when the person next appears.”
The spokesperson said it had not been introduced due to any capacity issues at prisons - despite the email stating that it was being sent “Due to Rimutaka Prison being at near maximum occupancy”.
A police source questioned how staff were supposed to keep victims of crime safe.
“I have no idea what the threshold is for being held in police custody now.”
National’s police spokesman Mark Mitchell said he had never seen frontline officers being instructed to “consider failures and stress” within the courts and prison system before exercising their powers of arrest.
“Frontline Police officers should be focused solely on public safety and the likelihood of reoffending when deciding to use their powers of arrest, not worrying about the impact on the Courts and Corrections system.
“It’s time for the Ministers of Justice, Courts, Corrections and Police to front up to the public and explain how we have reached a point in our country where police officers are being asked to make arrest decisions based on government failures rather than public safety.”
A spokesperson for Andersen told the Herald on Sunday “police are best placed to respond to this matter as it’s operational”.
Labour has made a number of policy and funding announcements around crime prevention but is struggling to shrug off repeated attacks that it is soft on crime.
In a Taxpayers’ Union-Curia poll early last month, National still led Labour on the issue of law and order, and a 2022 Ipsos survey showed crime was ranked as the fifth-most important issue facing New Zealand.
In November last year, the Government announced new measures to combat retail crime - including a fog cannon subsidy scheme open to all small shops and dairies in New Zealand. And $4 million was made available to local councils to assist with crime prevention measures.
National leader Christopher Luxon described Labour’s law and order policies as “kumbaya” and “a lot of mush” while launching policies that would send young offenders to military bootcamps and introduce electronic bracelets for youth offenders.