The response of police to reports of people running up big bills in restaurants and then disappearing into the night raises concerns not only for the restaurant owners left out of pocket.

Last week the Herald reported an instance of what appears to be plain and simply a crime. Three men apparently drank and ate heartily, running up a bill of nearly $300, at Grasshopper, a Thai restaurant at the five-star Stamford Plaza Hotel. The food bill came to $157, the drinks bill to $134. They ordered Tiger beer, Jim Beam, Chivas Regal, Glenlivet 15-year-old whisky, and left without paying.

Similar thefts have since come to light at restaurants in different parts of Auckland.

Grasshopper's staff were sure the diners had deliberately done a runner, rather than it being a case of confusion or absentmindedness. The customers were well-dressed, polite. The only hint that something may not be quite right was that they ordered their next drinks before finishing those in front of them. They popped outside to smoke cigarettes numerous times and then went out again -- seemingly for another -- and fled.


When the restaurant contacted the police they were told it was a civil matter for the owners to sort out. Criminal law should always be a last resort for behaviour which truly deserves police intervention, a spokeswoman said. "The criminal and the civil law serve entirely different purposes, she said. The primary purpose of the criminal law is to hold an offender accountable to society. Reparation is not its principal purpose -- that is a secondary consideration in criminal law as part of sentencing and 'reparation' is not guaranteed if a person is found guilty ... the primary purpose of the civil law on the other hand is to provide a mechanism for solving disputes between individual people and the primary purpose is to allow for damages to right a wrong if that is proved on a balance of probabilities".

This overlooks one thing. This was not a "dispute" between people, this was a business being robbed. The incident at the Grasshopper restaurant, on the face of it, appears to be a clear example of theft. It seems the diners intentionally left with goods in their stomach that they did not pay for. There are CCTV images of two of the Grasshopper Three. The police have been given a lead as well as grounds to act. By deeming it not a matter for them, they put the onus of investigation on the owners, whose options are to try to investigate it themselves or hire private detectives. Those options have limitations and may involve risk. Obvious problems can arise when an aggrieved party confronts those they feel have done them wrong. Theft is a significant breach of the law best investigated by our law enforcement authorities. On the same page of the newspaper as the Grasshopper dine and dash article was a report about concerns held by the Police Association president Greg O'Connor about a "serious shortage" of frontline staff.

There is now one constable per 503 Kiwis, down from one per 488 of us seven years ago. It is to be hoped that those numbers have nothing to do with decisions such as this.