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President's Column: Time to share the burden of solving our social ills

Anyone who has spent time in policing knows it is an ever-changing environment, but is it change for change’s sake if the landscape never really alters that much?

The way I see it, the heaviest demand for policing resources still comes from a few major social issues that affect the wellbeing of a large percentage of New Zealanders. Atrocious family harm statistics continue to grow and have a knock-on effect on drug and sexual abuse offending and other violent crimes.

Police has dedicated huge resources, time and expertise to initiatives aimed at combatting family harm. It’s paying off in terms of people being more willing to report family harm, and that is a positive, but increased reporting is not the sole driver of our shameful statistics.

Alongside, and often intertwined with family harm, is a mental health crisis. Some older officers will say that the closing of New Zealand’s specialist mental health facilities in the 1980s put Police at the coalface of mental distress right across the country.

They are correct that mental health demands on Police have been on a consistently upward trajectory, but New Zealand has a much wider problem than the highly visible mental health cases Police deal with daily.

Mental health and family harm now account for up to 70 per cent of the daily demands on a frontline officer. That simply has to change.

Police operating as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff is never going to be a real solution, and Police will never be able to respond to all those victims needing complex and professional care.

Officers have been coping with this crisis for many years and have honed their apporach with a variety of initiatives, increased resources and technology, but they are consistently let down by the lack of a whole-of-government approach to finding a long-term response.

Police has attempted to work in key partnerships only to find others are not delivering what is needed for an effective and coordinated strategy.

The Government’s wellbeing Budget has the potential to direct resources where they are most appropriate to deal with both the immediate crisis and the long-term change required.

We do not want to be here in another 30 years talking about unacceptable levels of family harm and mental health. They can’t just keep on being “unacceptable”.

The Budget’s $455 million investment in mental health could be a game-changer if resources and training are targeted where they are most needed. Likewise, the overdue and welcomed $320m to combat family and sexual violence needs to go to where it is most needed to effect real change.

Police has an integral part to play in both these areas and should be listened to when resource deployment decisions are made. Police has proven to be agile in response to significant crime and other social issues, but only all-of-government buy-in can produce the right results.

This Budget’s focus is a once-in-a-lifetime investment and as a country we cannot afford to let it fall prey to the folly of the notion that “the more things change the more they stay the same”. We have a national shame to attend to, together and now.

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