The Parliament Protests and the Posie Parker Rally have exposed the extent to which the Police frontline is under-resourced and under-funded.

NEW ZEALAND'S THIN BLUE LINE

By Thomas Cranmer

Soaring levels of crime, high-profile protests at Parliament and the Posie Parker rally have made policing a political hot topic over the past three years. Following last week’s budget, Police Minister Ginny Andersen announced that the government was nearing its goal of recruiting an additional 1800 frontline officers, as pledged in 2017.

According to Andersen, the new funding will guarantee the maintenance of the current ratio of at least one officer for every 480 New Zealanders. In 2017, the ratio stood at one officer for every 544 individuals.

These headline figures, however, can be misleading. Take, for instance, Auckland City District. By geography, it is the smallest of the 12 national police districts but it has the largest population. The Auckland City District stretches between Herne Bay and Freeman’s Bay to the north, St Heliers to the East, Onehunga in the south and Avondale in the west. It includes Waiheke and Great Barrier Islands.

On a normal shift there are usually only 12 patrol cars covering this entire area. Two officers per car. That’s the extent of Auckland’s frontline policing. They are supported by Neighbourhood Policing Teams (NPTs) that work with communities in neighbourhoods where people are particularly likely to be victims of crimes, as well as a number of specialist Road Policing Groups.

The recent Posie Parker rally in Auckland’s Albert Park highlighted this shortage of frontline personnel. The Police presence that Saturday morning in March appeared to be small. An Official Information Act response from the Police has revealed that there were 15 Police staff initially deployed to Albert Park. That initial group was supported by an additional 18 staff as the situation began to deteriorate. In total, therefore, 33 police officers were deployed at Albert Park, together with two Police photographers.

Since NPTs are not available on Saturdays, the Police effectively deployed their entire available staff for the Auckland City District to Albert Park that morning. It was similar to the level that they would police a Super Rugby game.

Given the unruly scenes that emerged during the rally, questions have also been asked about Police tactics. Coincidentally the IPCA Public Report into the policing of the Parliament protests has just considered the current status of public order policing in New Zealand and it makes for interesting reading.

Whilst that report was, in general terms, very sympathetic to the overall Police response, it did, however, highlight a number of issues connected with public order policing that are also relevant to the Posie Parker rally.

In the past two decades, New Zealand has shifted away from the “overly militarized crowd-control approaches” that the Police consider prevalent in the UK, US and Australia. Instead, there has been a deliberate shift towards a model that emphasises engagement, persuasion and negotiation, and minimises the need for confrontation and use of force.

However, we have not fully implemented a consistent nationwide approach. Indeed, although there is apparently a Police manual setting out their public order policies it has never officially been approved by Police leadership and instead has only been informally adopted by Police Support Units.

As it stands, there is no mandatory public order policing for all Police officers across New Zealand. This means that for smaller protests, such as the Posie Parker rally, the Police will instinctively stand back and instead prefer to police individuals rather than attempt to manage an unruly crowd.

This can, of course, become problematic for larger protests. It means, for instance, that during protests like those at Ihumātao or at Parliament, where officers need to be brought in from various locations around the country, the operational commands are not properly and uniformly understood by the officers forming a skirmish line.

The IPCA report into the policing of the Parliament protests begins its review of public order policing by considering its evolution since the 1981 Springbok tour. As those of us around at the time will very well remember, this was the largest civil disturbance in New Zealand since the 1951 strike by waterfront workers, and “Operation Rugby” was the police response. The report observes that there were running battles between protesters and Police on the streets, and a general sense that the Police were at war with a substantial number of “middle New Zealand”.

The IPCA notes that the reputation of the Police was substantially tarnished as a result of the Springbok tour protests. There were large numbers of complaints and the inadequate process by which they were dealt with contributed to the enactment of the Police Complaints Authority Act 1988.

Between 2008 and 2011, Police leadership initiated a review of public order policing with the goal of modernising the existing “team policing” approach. This review brought about a significant shift in policy and philosophy, aiming to transition towards a “prevention-first” approach instead of the previous response-driven approach.

One important aspect of this modernisation was the development of policing strategies to address alcohol-related harm, as alcohol-fueled public disorder constituted a significant proportion of public order policing. In 2011, a public order policing charter was drafted to reflect this cultural change, and it played a crucial role in shaping the Police’s approach to public order training for that year’s Rugby World Cup.

However, the IPCA notes in an understated tone that, “our impression is that the shift in approach has by no means been uniformly implemented or necessarily welcomed by the organisation as a whole. It is better characterised as a gradual and piecemeal evolution, with some parts of the policy, but not others, reflecting the new approach. As a result, there has never been an overall national agreement on what policing in this area should look like. Nor has there been a comprehensive policy and a uniform match between policy and practice. As a result, anecdotal evidence suggests that its implementation has varied between one district and another.”

The report goes on to state that, “The shift in thinking has also not been properly reflected in the training and skills of those responsible for public order policing at an operational level. Senior officers with significant public order policing experience have told us that since 2013, Police Support Units have struggled to get the resources required for adequate training and the development of standard operating procedures. One officer said that from 2012/13, ‘public order policing became a very dirty word and squads were scaled down and prevention first was going to be the answer to all our woes’.”

The IPCA was also told that some supervisors have tried to implement standard operating procedures for Police Support Units to improve consistency across the country, but that Police National Headquarters “lacked the appetite” for this.

Overall, the impression is like so much of our frontline public services – severely under-resourced and under-funded. The IPCA recommends that “an end-to-end public order policing model for New Zealand be developed … as a matter of some priority” and that the Police, “urgently acquire extra public order policing equipment”.

The Parliament protests and the Posie Parker rally produced ugly scenes that made global news. It’s in no-one’s interests to have the Police struggling to cope with these events. Both members of the Police and legitimate peaceful protesters were put in harm’s way as trouble-makers were able to run amok.

In particular, the decision by former Prime Minister Ardern and former Speaker Mallard to not engage with the Parliament protesters seems to be totally at odds with the current Police strategy that emphasises engagement, persuasion and negotiation in these types of situations. Indeed, Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster has let it be known that, without instructing the Prime Minister, he did encourage Ardern to engage with the protesters.

But rather than heed the advice of the Police Commissioner, Ardern, Mallard and the local MP, Grant Robertson, made it clear to Coster that they wanted the grounds cleared. It is, however, abundantly clear from the IPCA report that the Police did not have the training or equipment to safely clear the estimated 800 protesters from the grounds on 2 March. That message was reinforced by Coster after the report was released when he told Breakfast AM that he was “uncomfortable” when he met with frustrated politicians because Police “weren’t well-placed to bring about a resolution”. 

That view was reflected by the IPCA which found that, “The Police’s plan for the operation to clear protesters occupying Parliament grounds and the surrounding area was incomplete and inadequate” and that “Police did not adequately equip officers during the 2 March operation.”

It’s difficult not to conclude that many years of neglect of the Policing portfolio by this current government, coupled with political pressure to aggressively clear the Parliament protesters, put the Police in an invidious position on 2 March 2022.

Regrettably, a similar situation unfolded 12 months later when Posie Parker visited New Zealand. Upon her arrival, she was denounced by the Prime Minister and a number of government Ministers. This condemnation energised a highly politicised group of trans activists, who attended Parker’s rally in Albert Park. With the Police largely restricting themselves to the perimeter of the park, the rally quickly descended into 15 minutes of pandemonium which made global news.

Rather than gaslight the public, the government needs to come clean about the current capabilities of the Police, and the work that needs to be done to improve service levels. Like all frontline public service staff, the Police deserve adequate funding and resources to effectively carry out the job that we all rely upon.

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