Stopping crime turning into a big event

Judith Collins will officiate at another police “event” today — but not one with the flashing lights, sirens and fast cars that have become synonymous with police. She is to launch a new policing venture — to be done by the public.

This is not cost-cutting. The aim is to catch, charge and incarcerate more criminals and make the country more peaceable. The public is, or was, the point of having a police force. Which is the point Commissioner Howard Broad wants to re-emphasise.

The new venture is Crimestoppers. It is adapted from a British operation. People phone in anonymous tips on crimes or criminals to a not-for-profit organisation. The calls are not traceable.

Over 20 years the British operation has fielded more than a million “actionable” calls which contributed to more than 90,000 arrests and charges. “One in five murders in London is solved thanks to information from Crimestoppers,” its promoters say.

Crimestoppers is part of Commissioner Broad’s drive to reshape policing.

Broad does a passable rendition of PC Plod, complete with bulky figure and plain manner of speaking. Actually, a senior minister insists to me, he is a seriously smart thinker.

As Broad tells it, the original London bobby of nearly two centuries ago was a visible government figure in the neighbourhood, a keeper of the peace, on foot. Broad wants to rekindle that neighbourhood peacekeeping idea.

His reasoning is that in some neighbourhoods going to prison is commonplace. Change the neighbourhood’s assumptions and norms — and, with that, change potential criminals’ peer group expectations — and you may change the inhabitants’ propensity for crime.

For decades ministers have talked of getting police visibly back on the streets to deter misbehaviour. National promised it in 1990 with a catchy election jingle. Reviving the Maori wardens is an amateur version. Broad wants a modern version.

Go back a century or so and track through, first, the application of science to solving crime, then cars, eventually with radios and other gadgets. Policing was over time redefined as emergencies and events.

As police were able to respond faster to emergencies and other untoward events and were able to use more sophisticated forensic devices, pressure increased for even more rapid responses and apprehension of perpetrators of crime.

The presumption was that we would thereby be made safe.

Actually, Broad reckons, lots of flashing lights sends a message that all is not well. Nerves are twanged, not soothed. The 111 system is deluged. We became a very frightened nation and fabricated a national crisis out of a handful of the half-million calls that went wrong.

And the more efficient the police got, the more reported crime rates rose. The dramatic lift in domestic violence cases since policy began to act on them makes that point. “The more efficient you get at attending incidents, the more incidents you can be expected to attend,” Broad says.

We have become convinced we live in a crime-ridden society. What can be done?

Governments’ focus for two decades has been to lock up more miscreants for longer, year by year. The numbers behind bars has just hit a new record. There will be another new record next year.

Broad doesn’t want the emergency/event side of policing to stop. But he wants to revitalise the peacekeeping side alongside it: police among the public as a humdrum component of neighbourhood life — responding to concerns about the likes of graffiti, the neighbours from hell, intimidating behaviour and security of real estate, none of which warrant flashing lights and fast cars.

They would logically be part of whole-of-government teams, including also in some places iwi, aimed at the drivers of crime instead of the aftermath.

This amounts to a rebalancing from “body count” locking up of criminals to helping make safe neighbourhoods and business communities. This, he reckons, would be particularly beneficial to Maori in poor neighbourhoods whom he reckons the biggest losers from body-count policing, with imprisonment rates rivalling the United States.

His problem is that he has to do that at a time of fiscal constraint, with a tough union, backed by the public. Labour’s Clayton Cosgrove on Thursday complained that community policy in Christchurch were being pulled off their jobs.

A part-solution: a second level of police who do office and court work, freeing expensively-trained body-count police to get out more, and handle low-level investigations and offences, search warrants and custody. There could also be a lightly paid corps akin to the army’s territorials doing light duties, such as taking the initial swipe at an alcohol checkpoint, in addition to their day jobs.

This could make policing cheaper, more efficient and, just possibly, more effective.

Certainly, it fits Simon Power’s desire to tackle the drivers of crime. The question for Commissioner Broad is whether it will enthuse John Key once he has done with cough medicine.