By EUGENE BINGHAM
British police officers are poised, weapons at the ready. Former Auckland police commander Howard Broad is watching, fascinated. This is heavy duty.
Broad is observing an operation in central London, where the police force is one of eight around the country testing the latest in intelligence-gathering equipment.
Undercover vans are stationed around the city. They are set up like speed cameras, except the gear in the back can read number plates of cars driving by and instantly check them against databases of wanted suspects and known criminals.
If the camera recognises a suspect number plate, the police squad on standby will swoop.
On this day, the operation is specifically set up for counter-terrorism, but in other parts of Britain, the system is being used to catch burglars and other offenders.
As the team explains the technology to Broad, an alarm goes up. Could this be a terror suspect caught driving through central London? Osama bin Laden in the back seat of a Vauxhall?
Unfortunately, no. "It was some poor little sod with a stolen car and the forces of law and order descended on him because they were sitting there waiting for other things to happen," Broad recalled this week.
Broad, 47, has returned to New Zealand after six months observing how the British police work to see if some ideas can be transplanted here. The innovations he saw range from the technological wizardry of the smart number plate system to the legislative approach of tying police, councils and communities to a plan to tackle crime.
British policing has come a long way since the invention of investigative techniques such as 'ello, 'ello, 'ello, what's going on 'ere, then?
Broad was just the man for such an assignment. He joined the police in 1975, working in Dunedin as a constable before switching to the CIB in 1979. In 1986 he moved to Lower Hutt as a sergeant, but was soon transferred off the streets to behind a desk at headquarters, the kind of job some police dread but in which Broad thrives.
Apart from a stint as detective inspector in charge of investigations in Christchurch, Broad has spent most of the past 20 years in positions whose titles include the words "planning" or "policy" (since returning from Britain, his new title is assistant commissioner, planning, performance and development).
From 1999 until last year, he was district commander of Auckland City. Some district commanders enjoy fronting up when big crimes happen in their patch, but it's not something you saw Broad doing. Instead, he relished the opportunity to work with the local council to strategise, to plan.
"Howard sees the big picture," says a person who worked closely with him during his time in Auckland. "Not all cops do."
When he finished his time as Auckland chief, Commissioner Rob Robinson offered him the opportunity to study British anti-crime measures. He was linked up with the Home Office's police standards unit.
The pleasure he takes in planning and policy overcame the dubious delights of some of the places he had to visit: Toxteth, Liverpool, rocked by riots 20 years ago that left it socially crippled and looking like a war zone; south Manchester, with a notorious burglary problem; and parts of Blackpool, the beachside resort that has areas with crime rates significantly higher than elsewhere in England.
In Toxteth, where the police station is fitted with bullet-proof glass and protected by road humps designed to divert high-speed cars intent on a ram-raid, Broad walked the streets where Government agencies are literally rebuilding the place to reduce crime.
"I looked at some of the most depressing housing you've seen in your life, and yet gradually creeping through that is this neighbourhood renewal project where they are bashing down those houses and building quite nice ones."
In Mansfield, near Nottingham, he saw an initiative called Policing Priority Areas, pouring help and resources and manpower into communities riddled with crime.
Mansfield is a tough neighbourhood and a dedicated police officer and representatives of other central government and local agencies have been assigned there.
Broad's visit to Blackpool included inspecting a community project called Tower, designed to cut the rash of crime caused by drug addicts hooked on crack cocaine. About 100 people have been put on methadone and are closely supervised by a probation officer.
Broad says some crimes around Blackpool have dropped by between 20 and 40 per cent.
"They haven't got anyone off drugs altogether yet, but they have got them off this chronic, crazy drug offending. There are definite parallels with our issue with P."
In another part of Blackpool, he saw the "reassurance agenda", a plan to find out from communities what makes them feel unsafe and then address those problems.
"One of the interesting things there is they identify these things called signal crimes. People's perception of risk is much higher than actuality, so even if the police say crime's coming down, they say, 'but I see drug dealing and rubbish not collected, and noisy parties no one attends'."
Broad went to Churchill Gardens, the kind of housing estate where furniture lies scattered on the ground floor, chucked from the top balconies. Drug addicts loitered and the residents were under siege.
Police and community groups led a three-month consultation project. At the first community meeting, five people turned up. But gradually confidence grew. The question for the residents was: "Look, we know you've got a lot of issues, but what are your top three?"
Eventually, they agreed on litter, drug dealing and security. A blitz followed. Council staff cleaned up the rubbish and drug dealers were swooped on.
"While they're not sure they've cracked it yet, they're measuring the citizens' confidence."
The key to nearly all the projects Broad saw was the co-operation of communities, local and central government and police. As he says, it is not a new concept but the lengths to which it is being pursued in Britain did enthuse him.
Legislation enacted in Britain in 1998 requires chief constables, the chief executives of local authorities and other agencies to sign up to a three-year plan to tackle crime.
"I haven't brought back the idea that the Government should legislate but I have brought back an even stronger commitment that there should be a multi-agency crime reduction and community safety plan."
He thinks it should be a formal approach, similar to that taken in Auckland.
While he was district commander, Broad worked closely with the Auckland City Council which, with the police, the Ministry of Justice and Ngati Whatua, has established Safer Auckland City to concentrate on crime reduction and community safety.
Betty MacLaren, one of the organisation's three staff, is a self-proclaimed convert to the concepts Broad began driving during his time in charge of Auckland police and those he observed in Britain.
She spent 23 years working in child protection for Child, Youth and Family before joining Safer Auckland City when it began about three years ago.
The organisation manages several projects, including an inner-city safety strategy, a nationally recognised domestic violence programme and a scheme to make new city developments safer through features such as proper lighting and better design.
One of the latest projects involves businesses in Rosebank Rd, Avondale, which are trying to cut the number of burglaries by employing a security firm to conduct overnight patrols. The idea relies on two-way communication. MacLaren and the other staff report to an executive committee made up of partners and community representatives, as well as the city council's law and order committee.
MacLaren estimates she works with 50 or 60 other community groups and organisations, from Maori wardens to retailers, on various projects. She regularly gets ideas from those groups and bounces ideas off them.
"If I come up with a new burglary project, for instance, I could go to our stakeholders and they could say, 'No, no, so-and-so tried that a few years ago and it failed'.
"It's amazing what these people can identify as issues just by them being in the city and being aware of what is affecting their organisation and the community. It means we can strategise and be proactive rather than reactive."
As a fan of Broad's style while he was in Auckland, MacLaren was keen to hear about his British experience. She agreed with him that a formal approach to community-police-council plans to tackle crime was important, and said it was a strength of the Safer Auckland set-up.
Across in North Shore City, mayor George Wood is not so convinced. A former detective inspector, Wood believes the bottom line is that New Zealand needs more police on the beat.
"They say crime is a community problem and all that, but at the end of the day, the big issue is people's perception of safety. At the moment there is a bad perception [about safety] because you don't see police out there. If you see police, they are usually going from one job to another."
Wood says central government has dropped a number of issues on local government - from stricter dog control, to prostitution laws and gambling - and councils cannot afford to keep taking things on. "Local government does have some responsibility but I don't think we could be called on to put in resources."
But the Ministry of Justice's general manager of criminal justice policy, Warren Young, says councils are crucial to the crime prevention equation.
"They are plugged into local community groups and understand the issues," he says. Besides, councils, not police, have responsibilities for things such as planning issues, which can be a key prevention strategy.
The ministry likes the way Safer Auckland City works, and agrees with Broad's vision from Britain. Young says the ministry wants local authorities to work towards an Auckland model. Future crime prevention funding for councils will depend on them at least working on a community plan.
"But we are different in what we would expect of metropolitan areas, large provincial areas and small communities. We don't have the resources, nor would it be cost- efficient, to develop formal governance everywhere."
Broad would like to see some of the things he observed put to use in New Zealand. Part of the answer, he says, is better communication.
"There is developing science around how you go and consult people in the community. It's not just about going along and getting beaten up for all of their ills, it's a deliberate approach to go along and find out things."
Broad knows, however, further success will come from results, not words.
"If we can show some success - where there is this social, economic, crime and road safety benefit from a far better collaborative approach, then others will be more attracted to do it."