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A Police app developed by two frontline officers that combines technology and tikanga to provide on-the-spot help for people has been a smash hit with staff and the public, and now it's attracting interest from other government agencies and overseas law enforcement groups. Ellen Brook reports.

AWHI, which means help in te reo Māori, is the brainchild of two Tauranga police officers, Senior Constables Dennis Bidois and Ian Sadler, more usually known as Den and Saddles.

They are a bit of an odd couple – one a road policing tech geek, the other a school community officer fluent in te reo who “knows everyone” – but they were handpicked four years ago by the Western Bay of Plenty area commander, Inspector Clifford Paxton, in response to then Commissioner Mike Bush’s target to cut the Māori reoffending rate.

He asked them to devise a new way to help those who might be headed towards offending, reoffending or becoming victims. “We asked him what the scope was, and he said, ‘everything’,” says Den.

It was a wide brief, to say the least, but within two days they had come up with their concept, and it stemmed from one fundamental idea – the reason that they, and every other police officer, joined up – wanting to help people.

The key was a simple question that any officer could ask: Is there anything you need help with?

“We wanted to connect people who were in trouble or needing help to the people who could provide that help,” says Saddles.

But they also wanted to do it using manaakitanga – a person-centred approach – and rangatiratanga – self determination to help communities set their own course. That amalgam of ideas and values was the genesis for the first app, which combined Den’s many contacts in the Bay of Plenty with Saddles’ technical skills. AWHI 1.0, an interactive pdf, was a list of people in the Bay of Plenty who were willing to be on call to provide a range of services in their community.

“Connecting to Māori partners was easy because they’re my aunties, uncles and cousins,” says Den.

This is how it works: The offer of awhi does not have to be connected to any offending. It is entirely voluntary and requires consent, and is made “as well as, not instead of” any other action taken during an encounter with a police officer. The question is asked – do you need help with anything? – and, depending on the answer, an officer will use the AWHI app to search a list of providers, click on the appropriate link and send a pre-formatted email with the person’s contact details. The provider then emails or phones the person who needs assistance and they take it from there.

The important point of difference with AWHI is that the service providers are able to reach out to someone who has signalled they could use some help, not have to wait for a person in need to contact them. As Saddles puts it, “the service comes to you, you don’t have to go in yourself”.

He recalls, in the first couple of months of using AWHI, stopping a young man who was speeding. “He was unemployed and living in his car and was on a learner licence. I gave him an AWHI referral to help him get up to his restricted licence.”

About 18 months later, Saddles bumped into the young man. “Because he had got his restricted licence, he could then drive unattended, so he was able to get work doing deliveries and odd jobs. Because he had a job, he had a steady income and was able to go flatting. Because he had a proper address, he was able to get access to his kids again.

“My goal was simply to make him a safer driver, but it turned out so much better than that.”

The AWHI programme expanded into Waikato and progressively to most Police districts. AWHI OnDuty was trialled in 2021 and then rolled out nationally in May.

By May 2022, the frontline had used AWHI to make more than 31,000 referrals to more than 1270 services. At the time of publication, there have been almost 40,000 referrals.

During the Covid lockdowns, Den says, AWHI went “viral”. It was a time when police officers were one of the few government agencies on the road and interacting with people. The Ministry of Social Development (MSD), whose offices were closed, asked for their services to be included in the AWHI referral list, ranging from employment, health checks, food and money for beneficiaries.

AWHI is now available on all Police phones and in December an AWHI desktop pilot will be trialled with the intention of making it available to anyone with access to NIA and by authorised officers.

Anyone with access to NIA can make an AWHI referral to anyone aged 16 or over, with their consent. Referrals cover services such as mental health, family wellbeing and addiction, accommodation, budget assistance and care for the elderly. The costs of the services are mainly picked up by MSD.

Sixty per cent of AWHI referrals are through road policing. For Māori, Den says, 71 per cent of all contact with police is through road policing. It’s a critical area to address.

“Our road policing partners provide tuition, organise documentation and navigate MSD funding. Some young people don’t have any ID, some are effectively illiterate and don’t have the nous to navigate the required processes.”

And if people are worried that it’s adding to officers’ workloads, Den and Saddles are quick to point out that the average time to complete a referral is “one minute and 42 seconds”, though the kōrero around that could be longer.

They say AWHI is “made by the frontline for the frontline”, and they know there has been a lot of goodwill in Police towards the project. “We say to our people, Why did you join Police? Was it to help people? Well, here’s a tool and it’s called ‘help’.”

Now, the lads from Tauranga are working fulltime on AWHI as part of a seven-person team that operates out of PNHQ, with the assistance of Police’s Information and Communication Technology group. It’s overseen by senior project manager Brenda Sergent, who is a champion for the app and its creators.

“We have been very fortunate to have Den and Saddles as part of the project team. It’s been fantastic to take an idea from the frontline into a national solution. There are now an incredible number of people who may not have received help otherwise.”

Meanwhile, the reputation of AWHI has been growing and its potential is being recognised by external agencies wanting to work with Police, plus interest is coming from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada and the New South Wales and South Australian Police.

At the core of the app’s success is the partnership of Den and Saddles and a tikanga paradigm combining kawa (process and technical aspects) and uara (values and principles).

Den is a relative on his father’s side of New Zealand’s first Māori police officer, Hekenui Bidois. In BOP, he has worked in every Police workgroup except road policing. Saddles always knew he wanted to be a road policing officer, after joining Police from a career as a computer engineer.

Den puts it like this: “He’s got the brains and I’ve got the looks.” Saddles is a little more reflective: “It’s a great division of labour, because I don’t like talking too much and Den is gregarious and charismatic.”

Over the past five years, Den has used his people skills to talk to staff around the country who he knew would be interested in getting AWHI established. It usually starts with a cup of tea. “We call them kaiawhi – they go out with cups of tea and biscuits and establish contact with providers.” There are now 42 kaiawhi across the country, sworn and non-sworn, doing the work on top of their BAU.

“AWHI is a smart, supportive, safe app, but you must have relationships to get it going,” says Den. “It’s important to Ian and me that we ensure the tikanga aspect of it. Māori organisations love it because we don’t tell them what to do. We are just there to support. We are coming from a positive aspect of trying to help people, not just lock them up!”

Although they know anecdotally that AWHI is having far-reaching consequences, gauging the outcomes is not easy. “Our partners will tell us the good stories, but we don’t get much coming from them in terms of formal feedback as they may not have the capacity or capability to do that. The partners may not even know themselves what their success rates are… All they know is they have had 12 this week, eight last week, for example.”

One measure Den and Saddles cite is pre- and post-AWHI referral data. Saddles recalls one young woman who, before December 2018, had 41 occurrences in NIA. After receiving an AWHI referral for help with a driver’s licence, she had not been recorded in there since.

The responses from young people have been encouraging and funny.

“You gonna help me? You just gave me a ticket!”

“People in the community know about it now,” Saddles says. “It’s already in the vocabulary of the people we encounter. They say, ‘Hey, can we get one of those AWHI referrals?’ ”

An AWHI referral can be done for anyone, any time, on or off duty. You could make an AWHI referral for a friend or a colleague.

“The point is to help people, and I don’t have to put on the blue shirt to do that.”

If you would liketo know moreabout AWHI, email [email protected].

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