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Photo by Constable Cam Coulton.

Heading for the Coast

Most police now live and work in cities in the North Island – but some have tired of the big-city life and have headed south. They can attest to the many benefits of life and work on the West Coast.

The West Coast of the South Island is one of New Zealand’s special places. It is a long strip of beautiful rugged country between the Southern Alps and Tasman Sea. It is replete with natural beauty – a spectacular coastline, towering mountains, bush and lakes, with small towns dotted down its length.

The distance from Karamea Police Station in the north to the sole-charge station in Haast in the south is the same distance as from Auckland to Wellington.

It’s also a hell of a long way from anywhere and it rains all the time. Or so the myth goes. Such judgments about the West Coast are possible reasons why it is so hard to fill job vacancies there. At the start of the year, there were six frontline vacancies, some of them long term. That has now reduced to four, but other vacancies may be opening up under new organised crime funding.

The numbers may not seem a lot, but they create massive pressure in small stations, particularly when serving such a large geographical area.

So, why come to the West Coast?

Constable Ange Meldrum with son Louie at North Beach, Westport.

Constable Ange Meldrum has lived in Westport for seven years, and says the place has a “magical hold” on her. She owns her own home, at a quarter of big-city prices. “I have plenty of space for animals, and better yet, the beach, rivers and bike tracks are literally just down the road.”

Bringing up her young family in this small rural town, a safe friendly environment where everyone knows everyone, is just what she wants.
The police team is a “fun and friendly bunch” from all walks of life, and she can be home in two minutes after her shift ends.

Coming to the Coast via police jobs in Taranaki and Wellington, Constable Cam Coulton is relishing the challenges of provincial policing. “It requires a ‘can-do’ attitude and an independent skill set, but the rewards speak for themselves.” He and his partner, who has been able to get a good local government job in the district, own a three-bedroom home for half of Wellington prices.

Now in Greymouth CIB, he started his Coast career in Reefton, inland from Greymouth, doing isolated high-country work. “I was part of a very small and close-knit team who got on well and operated effectively without supervision.”

Constable Cam Coulton near the Lewis Pass summit in winter.

For Detective Kat McCormick, moving to Westport from Auckland was a chance to get out of the rat race and get ahead financially. “Being by myself and trying to survive living in Auckland was wearing thin and there was no way I could ever buy a home there on a single income.”

After a year, she has no regrets about the move. “Westport Station has a positive culture and staff look out for each other. You’ll be well known in the community – there’s no anonymity here – so it’s not uncommon to chat with the friendly locals wherever you go.”

These accolades from her staff are unsurprising to Inspector Jacqui Corner, the Police area commander for the West Coast, because she agrees with them. She is also an Auckland import, coming to the Coast for a promotion and because her partner’s family lives in the South Island.

Arriving in Greymouth four years ago, she hasn’t looked back. “I’ve taken to it like a duck to water”.

Right now, she is trying to fill vacancies at Franz Josef (a two-man station), Reefton (three-man) and Westport, as well as a road policing vacancy based in Westport. Some of these positions have been vacant a long time, and although she can use some relievers, the consistency of permanent placements is badly needed.

The sole-charge station at Haast has been staffed by relievers since February, and although that position has finally been filled, the arrival of the new officer has been delayed by the Covid-19 lockdown.

The gaps put pressure on the staff, and mean that having one or two away on leave from a station can have a huge effect on the frontline.

Jacqui says there is a great team atmosphere and officers are quick to pitch in for a big job. They are adaptable and quick thinking, operating “without the 24/7 back-up of services you get in the big metropolitan areas”.

“Here you become a really well-rounded cop. The cavalry isn’t coming, so you have to improvise, look at the bigger picture and see how you can approach things a little differently.”

And it’s not just regular policing on the Coast. “We have a variety of incidents to deal with like big weather events, or serious incidents like small plane crashes and helicopter crashes,” Jacqui says. (West Coast police made several arrests and confiscated $500,000 worth of methamphetamine in May in operations targeting organised crime and methamphetamine supply.)

Incentives to work there are plentiful, she says. Aside from the outdoor opportunities – hunting, fishing and tramping, and scenic sights that tourists pay big money to see – there are the financial benefits. Not only are house prices modest, but some of the small stations pay special allowances, for example Westport staff qualify for a hard-to-fill allowance and 1-2-3 man stations have Police houses.

One concern about the Coast is the lack of jobs for officers’ partners, so living in a Police house can allow a young family the option of living on one income for a few years, with a consequent increase in family time.

Jacqui thinks one of the big problems for the West Coast is that it is the “unknown”, particularly for those cops who may never have been there. “They’re welcome to contact us, or come and see us if you are passing through,” she says.

“You’re mad!” was the reaction Senior Constable Paul Gurney got from workmates and bosses in Auckland, when he told them he was heading for the West Coast. But he knew what he wanted: “I wanted to go rural, small town, South Island, fewer people. A different type of people.”

Initially stationed in Greymouth, he found he had more money, a nice house, no traffic jams, and a new style of policing: “I changed from working on a section of 17 cops to just two. All of a sudden I was doing everything. Investigation, lockup, fingerprinting, custody, to court… I found I now had the time.”

He ran the sole-charge station at Haast for years, and is now back in Greymouth as a school officer. Acceptance into the armed offenders squad has come at a much lower seniority than would be likely in a big city. “Oh, and it doesn’t actually rain that much. Apparently we have fewer rain days than Auckland.”

Horse riding at sunset, just one of the outdoor pursuits the Coast can offer. Photo by Detective Constable Wendy Bennett of Hokitika.

‘Fair, firm and friendly’ in Ōpōtiki

The problems of recruitment and retention in a small North Island town.

Filling frontline job vacancies at Ōpōtiki Police Station is an ongoing headache for Sergeant Mike McKenzie.

Ōpōtiki has a population of just over 9000 and is situated 40km from Whakatane in the eastern Bay of Plenty.

Mike has just managed to fill four out of five new frontline positions he’s been given over the last two years. He says it’s hard to keep people long term and he always has vacancies to fill. “People are always moving on to other jobs,” he says.

The aim of the new positions was to move to a 24-hour roster, but that’s proved impractical because there are always gaps due to leave and training.

With very few calls for service overnight, the nightshift is covered by Whakatāne, freeing up staff for Mike to create a roster that looks after officers’ welfare and safety as well as maintaining a good service to the community. Shifts always have at least two on duty, so no one is working alone.

And because officers aren’t on call at night, they can live further away from the town, which gives them more options of where to live.

Aside from worries about working alone, two other things can concern officers about Ōpōtiki, Mike says – lack of jobs for officers’ partners, and the desire to send their kids to better schools. “I’ve had people leave as soon as their kids reach high school,” he says.

Police houses are available, and everyone gets the hard-to-fill allowance of $6700 per year. But he says although the allowance used to be a lot of money, it hasn’t risen in 15 years.

Living expenses are cheap, though, and most locals are “hunters, fishers and gatherers”, with sea, bush and rivers around them.

Policing is “fair, firm and friendly” in Ōpōtiki, he says. “It’s a really different style of policing from the big city, in a positive way.” Officers know all the offenders, which makes working with them a lot easier.

Police Association Bay of Plenty field officer Bobbi Richardson appreciates the community constables putting in long service in small rural towns. For them, she says, a police career is not just about attaining rank. It’s about being connected to their communities, and being invested in those communities because their own families are there.

Amber Dempsey is a 25-year-old constable who shifted jobs from Hamilton Central to Ōpōtiki in March last year, and has found the small-town job challenging, but worth it.

“The close-knit team and strong working relationships with the community make it worthwhile. The change of districts and going from city to rural was immense but I think that everyone should give policing at an out station a go at some point if they get the opportunity.”

Her main reason for wanting to work in Ōpōtiki was to be close to her family who live in a nearby town. Another was that it would open up opportunities to work elsewhere in the Bay of Plenty later on.

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