If you are caught shoplifting in the Bay of Plenty, you are more likely to receive a warning from police than anywhere else in New Zealand. Figures released by New Zealand Police show Bay of Plenty officers have issued the most formal warnings to low-level offenders in recent years. Kiri Gillespie investigates exactly how many warnings this is, why this is happening, and whether the warnings actually work.
Bay of Plenty police are issuing more warnings than anywhere else in New Zealand, and one of the district's top cops says that is a good thing.
During the past six years, Bay of Plenty police have issued 13,820 formal warnings to people caught breaking the law. By comparison, Canterbury police issued 13,251, Counties Manukau issued 11,086, and Auckland issued 10,611.
Warnings, formal and informal, are arrest alternatives police can use for low-level offending such as shoplifting or disorderly behaviour. Formal warnings require police recording an offender's name. Informal warnings do not.
Bay of Plenty district prevention manager Inspector Steve Bullock said the benefit of formal warnings was tracking whether they worked - and they were.
"There is a high percentage of people who we never see again," Bullock said.
"Some, we might see one or two times. The others will revolve in and out [of the justice system] so we are more interested in changing their behaviour.
• Bay of Plenty policeman offered female colleague $20 for sex act
• Twenty-six new police officers for Bay of Plenty
• Western Bay of Plenty police warning recreational motorbikers
• Bay of Plenty police plead with drivers to keep speed down, drive to conditions
"We've learned that putting them in prison to be revolved 'round and 'round . . . isn't going to work."
Despite the Bay of Plenty's high number of warnings, the district reflected a gradual national reduction of warnings issued.
Man wearing fishnet stockings exposes himself to teen girl
"You've got to appreciate, we can't go warning, warning, warning. There has to be some accountability," Bullock said.
"If we can see those offenders have been warned before and that didn't work, we have to ask ourselves what are we going to do now?"
Bay of Plenty police have a goal to reduce Māori offending by 20 per cent by 2025.
Helping give low-level offenders a second chance with warnings helped, Bullock said.
"Some jump in at the high end and commit serious offending and go to prison straight away. But statistically, Māori enter the justice system early but for low-level offending. We are trying to prevent that," he said.
"We've got to break the cycle."
Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust's Tommy Wilson said the organisation regularly dealt with low-level offenders and tried "all the time to educate why we would rather these people not go through the court system".
"What we've learned is that if you can get to them before they get into [serious trouble], you can turn it around."
Youth worker Rangi Ahipene said many young people, particularly Māori, were disconnected and looking for a meaningful connection. Sometimes, this resulted in involvement with gangs and crime.
Ahipene said many young people did not seem to care about warnings or other police penalties but did not necessarily realise the consequences of them.
Professor of Criminal Law and Justice Studies at AUT Law School, Warren Brookbanks, said a conviction, even for a minor offence, could stigmatise someone as an offender and impact their future in things such as educational opportunities, employment, international travel and ability to pursue particular professions or trades.
Brookbanks said formal warnings, and the police encounter attached to them, could help shape a person's future by becoming something they did not want to repeat.
"It also means that young offenders are not labelled as being criminals for what for many may be their first encounter with the police. In other words, the cost of prosecution could be disproportionate to the seriousness of the behaviour, which often involves conduct like disorderly behaviour, possession of cannabis and minor shoplifting offences," Brookbanks said.
"The benefit for the community is that police don't have to spend so much time on minor offending and their resources are freed up to spend more time investigating more serious offences."
The total number of formal warnings issued in New Zealand in the past six years was 114,713.