A year out from the next election, a political bidding war has surfaced over police numbers.

Labour got the ball rolling with a promise to hire 1000 more officers if it was elected. New Zealand First went further, with leader Winston Peters suggesting that no fewer than 1800 extra frontline staff would be one of its coalition bottom-lines.

The parties put the cost of these additional officers at between $180 million and $324 million a year, which by any measure is a sizable annual investment.

Recent data indicates the force is under pressure to deliver the service that New Zealanders expect of it. In the year to June, police undertook 3 per cent fewer patrols than they carried out in the previous 12 months. In Auckland, the number of patrols was 5 per cent down.


At the same time, there was a 3.1 per cent rise in crime nationwide last year, which included 6.5 per cent more assaults, 13 per cent more burglaries and 12 per cent more robberies. As a Herald series revealed this year, some homeowners who reported that there property had been burgled never saw a police patrol.

There current police ratio is one officer to every 526 people, which is shy of National's target of one for every 500 people.

The Government accepts the case for more police. Prime Minister John Key has apparently discussed the matter with Police Minister Judith Collins, and has gone as far as to suggest that, as a parent, he worried about his son getting 'king hit' on a Saturday night and his daughter being hassled or even raped.

These are dramatic fears for a prime minister to raise publicly, but they do signal that the Government is alert to the political dimensions of the perennial law and order issue.

Key, while yesterday promising extra resources, suggested the need for a more sophisticated solution to police deployment. It would be good to hear him encourage a more searching discussion about crime, its causes and some enlightened approaches to dealing with it, besides recruiting more men and women to the police force.

Crime costs the economy dearly. A decade ago, the Treasury put the cost at $9.5 billion a year. In a separate calculation, the Ministry of Justice estimated that a career criminal cost society around $3 million in a lifetime of incarceration and brushes with the law.

Initiatives which cost a fraction of the money being mentioned for more police are not always popular, but this does not mean they should not be explored.

Canada, for instance, has a successful programme which has cut reoffending rates. In New Zealand, around 40 per cent of prisoners return to jail and 59 per cent are re-convicted within two years. Canada has set up 400 halfway houses for released inmates; New Zealand has two, both in the South Island.

Politically popular answers to challenging issues of crime and justice are easy. Unconventional solutions may be less populist but in the long term hold real promise.