By TONY WALL
Dozens of police officers are being told to return their cellphones as part of a Government-ordered cost-cutting drive which their union says is turning the force into a laughing stock.
It is the latest in a series of cost-cutting measures by Police Minister George Hawkins, who is crusading to cut "wastage."
It is understood that even the highest-ranking officers are not immune - Auckland City district commander Superintendent Howard Broad is said to be one of 57 officers in his area to be handing back his cellphone.
He could not be reached for comment last night.
The president of the Police Association, Greg O'Connor, said the cuts were ridiculous and Mr Hawkins was being mean-minded.
Cellphones were vital because the police radio network was open to interception by gangs and other criminals.
"The ones who are laughing the loudest now are the crooks.
"They're already making jokes to our guys like, 'Do you want to borrow my cellphone, mate?'
"Most of them have at least two. Even schoolkids use cellphones."
He said police informants would usually only call a cellphone, and the phones were also vital in emergencies and for raising staff afterhours.
It was ridiculous that the chief of the Auckland police would not have a cellphone, said Mr O'Connor.
"The minister can rightly demand that crime come down, but he has got to give the police the tools to doit."
Selwyn Manning, a spokesman for Mr Hawkins, said it was up to the discretion of district commanders who should carry the phones.
A recent case in the Counties Manukau district where an officer dialled hundreds of dollars of calls to 0900 sex lines on his station's after-hours cellphone was a prime example of the kind of waste Mr Hawkins was trying to stop.
"Police got a bucketful of extra money this year.
"The taxpayer deserves to know police are using it in the best way. [Mr Hawkins] is saying: 'Don't keep coming to the Government ... when you've got wastage like someone ringing a sex line'."
Mr Manning said any savings could be put into other crime-fighting initiatives.
Other saving suggestions Mr Hawkins raised include police recruits paying for their own training and youth aid officers driving smaller cars to save fuel.
Police received an extra $86 million in the Budget this year, but Commissioner Rob Robinson and district commanders have been left in no doubt that they should be looking to cut costs wherever possible.
It is understood that several districts have blown their budgets, and that two intakes to the Police College next year have been postponed.
A spokeswoman for Mr Robinson said that because of the need for savings, district commanders had been asked to take "whatever measures possible to conserve their financial situation."
It is understood that one measure in the Waikato involves constables parking their cars and doing foot patrols to save fuel.
Mr O'Connor said Mr Hawkins was "labouring under the misapprehension that the police are awash with money, that there is wastage all over the place.
"He might have been right five years ago - he is not right now."
He was particularly concerned about the cancellation of the two recruit intakes next year.
When two Police College intakes were postponed in the early 1990s, it took six years to get staff levels back to normal, Mr O'Connor said.
National's police spokesman, Brian Neeson, said the cuts were a part of Mr Hawkins' "Scrooge-like mentality."
The cuts were demoralising for police officers.
Mr Neeson said that the minister was interfering with district commanders' running of their districts.
"The next thing he's going to ask is if they'll share one teabag between three."