The drivers of the demands on policing are hugely varied in scale, levels of harm, complexity and geography. Policing, circa 2023, is in a danger zone with ceaseless calls for service that repeatedly exceed capacity to respond.
Any sincere assessment of when this new reality took hold must consider the 2012 introduction of Prevention First. It ushered in changes requiring police to take on new roles that were not resourced, and redeployed sworn staff from traditional frontline roles.
During this period, we also saw the establishment of specialised, ring-fenced teams such as ASAT and CPT along with CJSUs. These groups competed with traditional demand areas.
Yes, since 2017 we have had an 18 per cent increase in sworn officers and 250 AOs, but they have been absolutely swamped by a parallel, relentless increase in demand: public / political (or reactive) demand, preventive demand and organisational demand.
For all the resources, nothing is slowing down demand, leaving us struggling to deliver the core services Kiwis expects of us.
This is increasingly reflected in the public’s frustration with the policing response they experience and has contributed to a marked decline in the trust and confidence New Zealanders have in police.
Central to this concerning position is the dramatic rise in family harm and mental health demands.
These scenarios are often symptomatic of wider social and personal dysfunction rather than being criminal in origin, but the rate at which they are sucking up police resources is alarming.
In the past year, Police investigated 194,299 family harm incidents: on average one every 3 minutes, and ‘assault on a person in a family relationship’ now represents around 66% of reported serious assaults.
However, 62% of family harm investigations do not result in an offence being recorded.
With respect to mental health calls, on average police respond to 77,000 events per year involving a person having a mental health crisis, in distress, or threatening suicide – that’s an increase of 55% in the past five years.
Another way of looking at that statistic is police respond to 200 mental health episodes every 24 hours and most of them have no criminal element requiring police attention.
This is why the association is fully supportive of the co-response model which sees police, ambulance staff and mental health experts responding to an emergency call when it is coded as a person in mental distress or threatening suicide. Ultimately, the model should be designed to phase out police attendance unless there is a risk element that requires them.
This service is not currently available across the motu but it sure needs to be.
Within these two key drivers of demand, Police is taking on the work that should be resourced and led through Te Whatu Ora, Justice and Oranga Tamariki. These departments also have the expertise in areas where the presence of a blue uniform is often more a hinderance than help.
Key non-sworn areas such as communication centres and file management centres also bear the brunt of these demand pressures.
Throwing more Police resources at these demands is not a sustainable answer, but nor has Prevention First lived up to its goal of making New Zealand safer by preventing crime before it happens.
If meeting the demand requires police working overtime, do not ask them to do it for free anymore.
They do not want to work for free and nor should they.
That is why our current pay claim includes a demand for paid overtime at time-and-a-half. Nurses and firefighters are paid overtime. Other policing jurisdictions are paid overtime and cannot believe New Zealand police are not.
It is hypocritical to focus on the mental wellbeing of those who police work tirelessly to assist, if we do not also value the mental health pressures on our members who are out there, day and night, for others in distress. We need to be open about the toll this job can take on all Police staff.
There is a motion before conference from members seeking regular, mandated psychological testing for key Police staff. I support this motion. The increasing prevalence of PTSD in both serving and retired officers will not disappear anytime soon so perhaps Police could apply its Prevention First strategy by way of pre-emptive check-ups.
Our concern about increasing demands on our members is further amplified by many asking if Police can maintain quality recruitment and retain experienced sworn staff. Police is to be congratulated for the considerable feat of recruiting more than 3000 extra officers in the past 6 years.
However, it appears the worldwide difficulty in recruitment of police has now caught up with us. There is already evidence of a dramatic drop in applicants and serious pressure points in recruiting from some provincial areas.
Couple this with a 119% increase in the past six years in the number of sworn staff aged over 60, and the looming retirement bubble cannot be ignored.
The recruitment question and the retirement bubble are set against a backdrop of aggressive campaigns from Australian jurisdictions looking to poach quality trained officers.
It’s still unclear as to the success the Aussies are having – the best estimate is 100 applicants going to Queensland and Northern Territory. It is worth noting that that is one-and-a-half recruitment wings, and it could snowball if officers who have moved send news of better pay, conditions and weather.
For these tangible reasons Police can no longer ignore the need for systemic change in our remuneration system. What was meant to be an interim process of 21 steps in a pay band has remained the case for far too long and contributes to the inequities between police and teachers and nurses.
The 37% of constabulary recruited in the past 6 years are most impacted by this archaic system and when they consider the 21-year wait to maximise their earnings, Australia looks more attractive.
Recognising the impact of demand means we must embrace technology that allows members to work smarter, not longer.
AI, with its risk assessment abilities and capacity to accurately process massive amounts of data in record time is an obvious tool for police. Used, for example, in the evaluation of family harm calls, AI can gather and assess available information within the environment and provide police with a strong indication of the risk involved at the scene. On that basis, officers make informed decisions on whether a police presence is required, and if so, with what precautions.
We welcome Police using the AI tool SearchX – the intelligence system behind the TRM – in assessment of risks posed by offenders when officers are called to emergencies. A trial of SearchX reported it instantly found 15 times more connections to an alleged offender, including associates and firearms. In these contexts, AI may also be a lifesaver.
Digital notebooks also promise efficiency for officers and, budgets permitting, there is more technology to come.
I admit this short precis of policing is pretty sobering but familiar to all members. Tomorrow our keynote speaker will lay out the challenges increasing incidents of natural disasters will pose for Police resources and how they are deployed. Cyclone Gabrielle was a wake-up call to us all – from saving lives to reassurance patrols, police were at the forefront.
It’s obvious there is no single panacea to the societal and climate-related deluge of demand on police, but it feels like now, more than ever before, we need to get very serious about how police fit into this picture as the status quo is unsustainable.
We need to ensure we attract and retain the extraordinary people that work for Police. Their commitment to keeping us all safe needs to be reinforced at every level. They must be respected and recompensed fairly.
Gang researcher and sociologist Jarrod Gilbert is patron of the recently graduated Wing 369. He’s an astute observer of both sides of the law in Aotearoa.
Having gone through the journey with the 59 recruits, seen them grow, train hard, study and disperse to their districts, he optimistically commented that “the future of frontline police is in fine shape”.
That is what we are all here to ensure.
President New Zealand Police Association, Te Aka Hāpai