More than 500 primary school children have been arrested in the past five years - many of them caught stealing or fleeing from police.
New statistics released to the Herald reveal more than 23,000 children aged under 15 were arrested between 2014 and 2018. Of those, 555 were under 12 years old.
As of June this year a further 1445 children, 39 under 12, have been added to the grim statistics.
Senior Sergeant Simon King said the children were being picked up for incidents such as graffiti, violence or stealing, but also in situations where the children were unsafe or on the streets.
There were many factors but poverty was the major driver, King said.
"During an initiative with youth involved in police pursuits some said they would take cars because they had no means of transport, and were hungry and needed to get food.
"It is easy to say they are nicking cars for a bit of a joy ride, but really, it is a reaction to poverty, and so with youth offending we look at the whole picture."
None of the under-12-year-olds arrested had ended up before the courts, because 10 is age of criminal responsibility and children up to 12 could be charged only for murder or manslaughter, of which there were no cases.
In most situations the children were taken home, but in more serious cases or where their homes were unsafe they were referred to youth aid or Oranga Tamariki. Police told the Herald they did not have numbers for those referrals.
The number of children 15 and under being arrested is falling – 4247 in 2014 was down to 3778 last year.
King said the overall drop in arrests was due to police taking a less punitive approach, seeking alternatives and working more closely with other agencies.
But the drop had not been as great for Māori.
Of those aged 15 and under arrested last year, more than 73 per cent were Māori, up from 68 per cent in 2014. Of the 72 under-12s, 60 were Māori.
The figures, released by police under the Official Information Act, showed similar trends for all youth arrests under 18, with Māori 66 per cent in 2018 up from 60 per cent in 2014.
Māori Principals' Association president Myles Ferris said despite the reductions in numbers, the high proportion of young Māori arrested showed police strategies had failed.
Young Māori were more likely to be picked up because police spent more time patrolling areas of higher deprivation, often with high Māori populations, Ferris said.
Teachers also needed to be better trained to assist children who had suffered trauma, he said.
Strive Community Trust chief executive Sharon Wilson-Davis said the key to reducing youth arrests was to keep children occupied.
The trust, run out of Te Puea Marae in Māngere, started through iwi Waikato-Tainui with a focus on Māori in the area, but now worked with all youth.
"I think children respect and appreciate compassion, kindness and boundaries, no matter what their race."
Lifewise team leader of youth housing Aaron Hendry said the figures were not surprising.
"We are noticing more and more young people living on the streets of Auckland, and 80 to 90 per cent are Māori."
Many youth they helped with finding housing had never felt as if they'd had a home, and were searching for a sense of community.
"The links to crime are about a longing for community, which they find in peers or gangs. It is about stability and survival, stealing food, or cars for transport."
Chief science adviser for the justice sector Dr Ian Lambie said it was positive to see a drop in arrest rates, but 12 and under remained a "gap" in the system because children that age were below the scope of police.
"We are talking about young people, many out of the school system, with multiple adversities in their lives, often a cocktail of drugs, alcohol and violence in their family lives."
Lambie was involved in some specialist therapeutic programmes, including government agencies and iwi, to work with high-risk youth, but said more needed to be done.
"If we can identify these youth early we can stop them going on to become serious offenders, developing mental illnesses, and really can improve their lives."
Oranga Tamariki's director of youth justice system development, Phil Dinham, said that when children were referred to them by police they initiated family conferences and developed action plans.
"Poverty and other things in their lives are out of our control, but once they come to us we do all we can to assist."