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On the face of it, the role of police in New Zealand society seems relatively straightforward. According to the New Zealand Police website, it is to “prevent crime and crashes, improve public safety, detect and bring offenders to account, and maintain law and order”.

If only it were that simple, but contemporary policing is a complex beast because it is an integral part of our complex and evolving community.

We tend towards holding the principles of British Home Secretary Robert Peel as the founding ethos of modern policing, despite policing as a construct having evolved many centuries earlier.

Of Peel’s nine principles, I believe the second to be the most important and the foundation of a fair and accepted police service – “to recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and the ability to secure and maintain public respect”.

This principle is undoubtedly being tested in the United States, compounded by the existence of literally thousands of police services across that country, each operating in silos in terms of operational preferences and degrees of political influence, which ultimately undermine this “Peelian” principle.

The New Zealand policing environment is less fraught and less militaristic, but we cannot be complacent about domestic challenges to the second principle, especially when we add in the demands of Covid-19.

With respect to breaches of various Covid-level restrictions, New Zealand Police has, to date, taken an appropriately measured and discretionary approach. That licence for discretion is based on the professionalism of police who are trained to assess individual situations. Essentially, they aim to “calm the farm”.

However, they appear damned if they do and damned if they don’t use discretion. At one end of the so-called law and order spectrum are the provocatively defiant and at the other, those demanding the full force of the law.

But what would New Zealand society gain from the chaos that would have ensued with mass arrests of gang members breaching crowd restrictions at a tangihanga, thousands of anti-lockdown, anti-mask, Covid conspiracy theorists in Aotea Square, or iwi members at checkpoints?

The way police handled these events shows the value of a non-politicised police service.

Police in Victoria, Australia, have been more proactive, arresting and fining hundreds. Yes, their state is in the grip of a serious Covid outbreak, but this approach has come at a heavy price. My counterpart in Victoria worries about the long-term harm to the reputation of police and their relationship with some communities.

More unrest is likely as the economic impact of Covid widens the gap between those who have and those who don’t. People with assets thrive, while people without housing or jobs dive.

This potential disruption will further strain the ability of police to adhere to Peel’s second principle.

If a growing sector in our community feels ignored, disenfranchised, disadvantaged or isolated, eventually there will be pushback and police will bear the brunt of it.

A successfully functioning society requires a strong sense of fairness and equity and this will be tested as Covid and its health and economic repercussions persist.

We can’t arrest our way out of unrest. Sustained force is ultimately unsustainable, and because we police by consent, it is time to ensure we prioritise the trust of the community that we police so we remain part of that community.

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