The police are laying their ghosts to rest with different methods and a fresh culture, report Catherine Masters and Jared Savage

The country's top cop, Peter Marshall, was out with the rank and file on the late shift on New Year's Eve helping staff deal with a young woman cutting her wrists with a knife at the end of Princes Wharf.

A few days later one of Marshall's deputies, Mike Bush, and a few other senior officers went to the mortuary while Disaster Victim Identification staff were assisting with the post-mortems of the Carterton balloon tragedy victims.

Marshall says that in the past executive staff would go out "sporadically, shall we say" with the frontline officers, but now they are out there regularly.


"This has been absolutely ingrained into the current executive and it's good for the soul for them to be out on the street as well."

Bush said: "Our staff will always confront bad people and do tough things and we just need to remind ourselves of that."

This is the new top echelon of the New Zealand police, and staff all the way down the hierarchy seem to be highly impressed.

It's unheard of, an officer told us, the Commissioner of Police going out on the beat.

"The guys really respond to that. He's a very inspiring man."

What a change. It wasn't long ago that police national headquarters was described by the rank and file as "Bullshit Castle".

An anonymous officer called it that in a report only last year, but was referring to how things were in former Commissioner Howard Broad's day. "The Commissioner and all his mates at Bullshit Castle at headquarters should get back on the street and get a reality check," the officer said.

The report, from PricewaterhouseCoopers was critical of the courage of senior management to make the bold culture change needed in the wake of a report into serious sexual misconduct by some in the police.

A series of rape allegations, sparked by Louise Nicholas, had led to prosecutions and in some cases convictions of police officers. What followed was a three-year Commission of Inquiry headed by Dame Margaret Bazley. Her report was five years ago but the fallout has lingered on and the reputation and morale of the police have taken a hammering.

Work immediately began to change the so-called "culture", but last year former Police Minister Judith Collins warned senior officers to speed this up - and she changed the guard. Gone was Howard Broad (he did not seek a second term) and in was Peter Marshall, fresh from a stint as Commissioner of the Solomon Islands where he set about "rebirthing" that dysfunctional force. Marshall has streamlined its executive structure and brought in many new faces. A different style of policing is being developed and rolled out around the country in which prevention of crime is paramount.

Before long every officer in the country will be tasked, when attending a domestic or fight, with thinking about how to make sure there is no repeat incident. They will have to ask hard questions about why the crime happened and help in figuring out what can be done to prevent it happening again. Strangely, the nation's top police officers, are not flinching at words like "holistic." They have not gone soft, they insist. On the contrary.

But policing is becoming a lot more than just pushing criminals into the court system. It is about concepts such as second chances for low-level offenders and neighbourhood policing teams who get alongside communities and identify why the crime is happening, then try to do something about it, such as enlisting appropriate agencies.

A trial in Counties Manukau, when Mike Bush was district commander, has been so successful that Prevention First is being rolled out across the country as part of a range of initiatives under the heading Policing Excellence.

The new leadership and direction seems to be paying dividends with the troops. Marshall has two deputy commissioners - Bush and Viv Rickard. Of the more than 20 police officers we spoke to around the country, from constables to superintendents, every single one was glowing about the leaders. Some said it was the best administration they had served under in 30-year careers - one even called the three the "Holy Trinity." Another said they were "good blokes, down to earth, no bullshit, no pretensions".

Frontline staff are impressed that Marshall is their best cheerleader and that he cares about them in ways which make their lives easier.

Said one: "We would have been one of the only police forces in the world that didn't supply shoes with uniforms. Howard Broad sat on that for years and Peter Marshall came in and sorted it out within six months. And other practical things, like trying to alleviate the amount of paperwork we have to do ... They know how cops think and make decisions based on that."

They also appreciate someone defending them in the media. Several commented on how quickly and firmly Marshall had moved to rebut a critical article by former MP and police inspector Ross Meurant in North & South magazine. Marshall regularly blogs on the police website and sings the praises of the force or points out positive public trust and confidence ratings or tells anecdotes.

Officers told us that in the past, management had been guilty of allowing people to stay too long in senior positions but now there are new district commanders in Northland, Auckland, Counties Manukau, Bay of Plenty, Wellington, Tasman and Canterbury.

One said the appointments are popular because "they're not giving jobs to f***ing idiots any more".

Rosy as it sounds, there are those who urge caution. Greg O'Connor, the veteran president of the Police Association, agrees the force is looking good - but warns it's still very fragile.

"You only need a few things to go wrong ..."

Though it's true there is more support at the frontline than he has ever seen, he points out that the police have had to go through a lot of pain to get there, and not just the pain of the sexual misconduct allegations and prosecutions.

There was Incis in the 1990s, the ill-fated $130 million computer installation which had to be abandoned. This led to budget cuts and meant there was no investment in infrastructure, so police stations and cars were run down and communications centres poorly resourced.

A disaster was waiting to happen and did happen when police failed to respond to Iraena Asher's 111 call from Piha. The young woman disappeared and has never been found.

Police were slow, too, to respond to the methamphetamine boom which allowed organised crime to become entrenched, and a backlog of child abuse cases grew in the Wairarapa and around the country.

And though O'Connor is right behind Prevention First, he says this must not impact on the police's core functions of responding to calls and investigating crime.

He also points out that Counties Manukau got 300 extra staff to get its good results, but the other districts won't.

"With every new initiative you have to find staff to do it. Or something has to give. We've got to be careful about what gives."

Peter Marshall acknowledges Counties Manukau had a leg-up with extra staff but says for a long time they had been under-resourced.

But he says the new initiatives won't be to the detriment of response and investigation if police are smart about how they use staff. The emphasis is on sorting problems out once and for all, thereby preventing further crime.

"If everybody throughout the organisation has a responsibility to think 'well, listen, we're going to go this address, there's been a serious assault, how can we actually make it our business in a constructive way to ensure we don't, if possible, go back to that address again ... It's a collective approach, it makes sense, it's logical and we're confident."

He doesn't agree with everything that has been written and said about the police and "utterly rejects" a line in the PricewaterhouseCoopers report which found the DNA needed changing.

This is not the culture of the police he knew before he left for the Solomons and it's not the culture he knows now.

As for the term Bullshit Castle, that has been around since he joined in the 70s - though says he doesn't really know what it means.

"I talk frankly and honestly and my executive do and what may have been in the past, people will judge that, but we want fresh winds blowing through police national headquarters, we want absolute transparency."

The police force has been around for a long time - 125 years - and has a very proud record and he doesn't see there needs to be any rebirthing in this country, more a fine-tuning against the backdrop of the inquiries and public commentary, and that is what he is doing.

Under his watch, if the police stuff up they will acknowledge it, deal with it and move on. He points out they have 3000 taskings a day and in the past 12 months have dealt with earthquakes, the Rugby World Cup, tragedies and suspicious deaths, and do a great job.

"I'm not ignorant in the sense that I'm not blinded by New Zealand Police. I mean, we've got 12,000 people, they reflect New Zealand society, we will have people who err but by crikey they're dealt with quickly, they're dealt with efficiently and they will be under my tenure."

The cornerstone at headquarters had been assiduously getting through the 60 recommendations of the Bazley Report, and most have been addressed or are in the final stages.

In Marshall's view, the culture of the police is healthy, vibrant and constructive and underpins the good results they achieve.

He is clear Operation Austin - the investigation into sexual allegations against some officers - focused on a period of the 1980s and a cluster of police officers in the Bay of Plenty.

The majority of police today, probably 80 per cent, would not have even been sworn in as police officers in that era.

Marshall appointed Mike Bush as his second-in-command, along with already appointed deputy commissioner Viv Rickard.

Of Rickard's many merits he praises his "wonderful understanding of the trials and tribulations of the frontline" and says of Bush that he is a polished investigator and is personable and practical.

Bush is also a driving force behind the Prevention First strategy. When we spoke to Bush, he said he joined the police in 1978 because he wanted to make a difference.

He didn't ever expect he would be sitting in national headquarters making a difference to how New Zealand polices, but he is.

He wants New Zealand to be safe - not safer - and says this is possible with public buy-in.

And this is what the Policing Excellence policy is all about.

"It's making sure people don't become victims. It's about making a safe society."

There are new buzzwords and phrases in the policy, such as alternate resolution and pre-charge warnings, and these are about not routinely sending low-level offenders to court and clogging up the system.

It's not touchy feely, because people still get arrested, but it is a holistic approach.

"What we've done is give our police officers back their discretion to decide whether or not they actually send these people to court. So we still encourage them to be arrested and detained and placed in police cells, but for a lot of the lower level offending that sanction is enough.

"Plus we'll do some other stuff in the form of getting them some support and advice if they're young offenders especially. One thing we don't want to do is put someone on the justice treadmill that they may not be able to get off, so if we can divert them in another way ... It's not actually going soft, in some ways it's a form of old-fashioned policing."

The short-term goal is a 13 per cent reduction in crime and a 19 per cent reduction of entry into the justice system by 2014/2015, which he says is challenging but achievable.

One of the highlights of the new approach, he says, is that staff really believe in it because "it makes sense. It's the right thing to do. Yes, in an ethical and a moral sense. It's really what we come to work to do, it's what we're paid to do.

"We want to make our streets safe, we want to make our homes safe, particularly for children and other vulnerable people. It's something we've absolutely got to focus on. And you asked, is it possible? It's possible if the whole community, all New Zealanders, get behind it, that's when it gets possible.

"It's not possible if the New Zealand police try to do it alone but it is possible if the four-point-whatever million New Zealanders get behind it."

Plans on how to get that buy-in are still to be revealed.

At the next level down from the police executive are 12 district commanders, three of whom are in the upper North Island. Marshall moved the district commanders from the old executive structure to give them an absolute focus on their areas.

Replacing Bush as district commander in Counties Manukau is John Tims. He has policed and lived in the area for many years but at 48 is part of a relatively younger team heading the districts.

He's a big man at 197cm (6ft 4in) and is so keen on how things are going in the police and in Counties Manukau he drove up country from his holidays to speak with us.

He, too, has no problem talking about the police approach being a holistic one.

He has a particular compassion for victims of crime (and led the victim focus part of the Prevention First strategy) but acknowledges sometimes offenders are victims too.

"It's easy for us to turn up at a scene and just arrest the offender," he says, "but actually having a conversation with that person may change that person's life.

"If we can get them early, talk to them and find out what the real cause is and get that help and assistance, do the wrap-around, then we're all in a better place."

Superintendent Mike Clement moves from the Bay of Plenty to take the helm at Auckland City. Though he did not want to speak before he starts the job, he is described as a straight shooter and tough as nails.

Up in Northland, Superintendent Russell Le Prou takes over from Superintendent Mike Rusbatch, who in turn is now in charge of Wellington.

Peter Marshall describes the whole crop of new and existing appointments to executive and district commanders as "absolutely ethical".

He will be leaving the police in 2014, he says, at the end of his three-year Commissioner's contract which will mean he has given close to 42 years' service.

The police force he would be happy to see is one that is completely respected for its transparency, with happy police officers who know headquarters are right behind them and will back them up.

"It's exactly what I will do, any time day or night if they've done the right thing, and even if they've erred but they've done so in good faith, I'll back them up and I will do that publicly - and in private if need be."