Arriving in military style in an Air Force Hercules last month, extra staff drafted in from throughout the country to help with border checkpoints in Auckland were a welcome sight.
A total of 45 officers from Southern, Canterbury, Tasman, Central, Bay of Plenty and Wellington were flown to Hamilton to relieve checkpoint staff in Tāmaki Makaurau.
More than 60 additional officers were deployed, including 34 who volunteered for the duty, operating at 10 checkpoints around Auckland’s northern and southern boundaries.
The cavalry had arrived to help enforce border rules as Auckland remained in Level 4 while the rest of the country moved to Level 2 – checking essential worker status and, from September 16, evidence of having a Covid test.
Staff nationwide had already been busy dealing with alert level restrictions for the preceding three weeks.
In mid-September there were more than 300 staff on border duty in Auckland, with up to 60 on each shift, 24/7. Defence Force staff have also been seconded, with eight joining each shift at major border crossings. Upper Hauraki was also included in the border checks after cases of the virus were detected there.
In reality, it’s mundane and tedious work punctuated by bursts of violent behaviour, crime and bizarre events, some of which made headlines worldwide – the seizure of $100,000 in cash and the confiscation of a bootload of KFC, for example.
During Level 4, 235,108-plus vehicles were stopped at the border and 3578 were turned around; 93 people were charged with a total of 97 offences as at September 22 and 183 people were formally warned.
Since Level 3 started at midnight on September 22, and as at September 27, four people had been charged with four offences and four were formally warned, a tiny percentage considering that 322,645 vehicles were stopped at the checkpoints at the northern and southern boundaries of Auckland. Of those, 5224 were turned around; 11,578 heavy vehicles were stopped and 506 were turned around.
It usually goes smoothly as long as people turn up with the correct documentation, says Inspector Ross Ellwood, one of three commanders for the southern checkpoints.
Breaches encountered by police have included forged and photocopied documents. One person attempted to travel through a checkpoint with an exemption they had written themselves. A couple made it all the way from Auckland to Wānaka before they were rumbled.
Another couple presented a letter saying they had completed Covid tests the day before, but enquiries revealed that the testing locations they named were closed at that time.
A vehicle attempted to bypass a checkpoint by cutting through a paddock.
A sharp-eyed sergeant found a passenger hidden in a car boot after noting the sagging back end of the vehicle.
Excuses made for needing to travel have ranged from needing to charge an EV to seeking out better-quality meats, with KFC firmly at the top of that list again, as Ross explains.
“A couple of guys managed to sneak out of Auckland taking a long route on some back roads to Huntly, just to buy some KFC, but they couldn’t face the long trip back, so tried to come through the northbound checkpoint with all their KFC and without the correct documents. They each got a $300 infringement notice, so their $60 KFC turned into $660.”
More seriously, a police officer was allegedly struck on the head and had his radio cord wrapped around his neck during an altercation after a vehicle had fled from the southern border. Two other officers were bitten, and in another case, an aggressive and irrational passenger had to be sedated and sent to hospital.
Ross acknowledges the challenges, including the long shifts – up to 10 hours including travel – and boredom brought on by the repetitive nature of the work, often done in poor weather conditions. “It’s not the reason why most of us joined Police!”
However, he said, he was “super impressed” with the professionalism of all the staff. “You couldn’t ask for anything more in terms of Police values.”
One of the toughest experiences had been dealing with a family who sought an exemption to leave to visit a relative in palliative care, but when they reached the border they were unaware he had already died. “We had to let them know and then turn them back because a death falls into a different category and it needed to be referred to the Ministry of Health for an exemption.”
And cross-border custody arrangements involving shared care of children, which were possible under previous Level 3 restrictions, are now against the rules. “It’s been really tough on families and our staff having to deliver those messages,” Ross said. “We have had to deal with a lot of tearful people.”
Staff have also had to be flexible with short-notice change of duties, sometimes by a matter of hours, according to one officer in Auckland who said a colleague had been seconded to work a nightshift, then had to look after her children while her partner worked, and then had only a couple of hours’ sleep before the next shift.
“Staff have said it would have been nice to have been rotated out with other members within their teams to share the load as others don’t have small children and are in a better situation with no commitments,” the officer said.
However, she added, staff were trying their best to make the work fun and good logistics and good food, with three meals a day being supplied by a local supermarket, had helped.
The checkpoints all have shelter, fridges, microwaves and kettles, and a good supply of snacks.
The Police Association has played its part by supplying 300 branded beanies that were well received by members operating in cold and damp conditions.
Meanwhile, enforcing Level 3 lockdown restrictions presented challenges in other parts of the country, such as rural areas where some staff feel that “Big Brother”-style policing may result in a drop in trust and confidence.
One officer in a rural town said that having to door-knock every house to find out which were holiday homes and which belonged to locals had felt like a “huge overstep” in policing the community.
“We don’t even target our gang members in this way.”
The call to duty in Tāmaki Makaurau came just as police were finally in line for their Covid-19 vaccinations being rolled out by MedPro teams around the country.
The initial lack of priority given to the vaccination of police staff has been top of mind for those concerned about the health and wellbeing of the staff tasked with enforcing lockdown rules.
Letter-writer Anna Scott notes: “Our young and potentially still not fully vaccinated frontline police are still confronting ‘bubble busters’, protesters, roadblocks and all other public-facing roles with little more than face masks to protect them.”
The vaccination status of checkpoint staff was not something that had been actively looked at, Ross said. Vaccines are currently being given to police throughout the country. He hadn’t heard any concerns about it from officers.