Analysis: Police numbers in the political crossfire

More police are needed on the street, say NZ First and Labour.
DOMINICO ZAPATA/FAIRFAX NZ

More police are needed on the street, say NZ First and Labour.

ANALYSIS: Do tasers, body armour and better pepper spray make up for having fewer police on the ground? Police Minister Judith Collins rattled off a list of items (including "boots") for consideration when counting cops.

The Government has come under fire from Labour and NZ First for not increasing the number of sworn police officers.

As a result of the police force being understaffed criminals are getting away with more and there is actually an increase in crime, opposition parties say.

Police Minister Judith Collins insists she had already been looking at increasing police numbers before NZ First demanded it.
HAGEN HOPKINS/GETTY IMAGES

Police Minister Judith Collins insists she had already been looking at increasing police numbers before NZ First demanded it.

So let's have a look to the numbers to paint a better picture of the state of our police force.

POLICE OFFICERS PER CAPITA IN DECLINE

While police numbers are up, they're actually down when compared with New Zealand's growing population.

The Government are cracking down on burglaries.
123rf

The Government are cracking down on burglaries.

The ratio of sworn officers to members of the public is now worse than in 2009 (under the current Government), but remains relatively steady.

In 2009, there was one police officer for every 501 Kiwis. This year, that changed to one officer to every 526 Kiwis.

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The ratio has been been improving since 2000, but has began creeping out for the past four years. 

Collins said the population rise had little to do with immigration and was more about fewer Kiwis going overseas, and Prime Minister John Key said on Tuesday a reflective increase in police was "likely".

NZ First deputy Ron Mark said more police were needed because crime rates were going up, not because of population increase: "Why would you need more police to solve less crime?"

A goal of one police officer to every 500 people is the Government target, a standard which the Police Association says should be the "minimum". 

The police would need an extra 471 officers to make the 1 to 500 ratio.

LESS CRIME RESOLVED

Even though the 'recorded' crime rate was down, trends showed fewer crimes were being resolved under the current Government.

In 2009, there were about 451,000 crimes reported and 47 per cent of these were resolved. Compare this with 2014: there were 350,000 crimes reported, but only 41 per cent were resolved.

That's a 6.2 percentage point drop (or 13 per cent drop) in the rate of recorded crimes being resolved.

Sexual assault had the highest drop in crime resolution rate over time, with only half the cases being solved (down from 62 per cent in 2009). Other crimes with the highest drops in resolution rates were harassment or abduction, negligence or dangerous acts and intent to cause injury.

Burglaries and theft currently had the lowest resolution rates - areas that the Government is cracking down on.

It's important to remember that 'recorded' offences mean they were raised with the police - but many crimes are never reported to police, and are more likely to be reported if they involve insurance or medical treatment.

A crime is 'resolved' when an offender is identified and dealt with, for example when they're prosecuted, warned, cautioned or diverted. The police accepted the decrease in crimes being resolved, but highlighted that there were 30,000 fewer unresolved offences in 2014 than in 2009.

POLICE FUNDING HAS INCREASED

Police funding almost doubled between 2000 and 2011 - but it's only gone up 4 per cent since then. 

The increases do not take into account inflation, so small increases counteract that rise. The police were allocated $1.64 billion in this year's Budget, and that is forecast to rise to $1.69b next year.

Labour have called for Collins to go cap-in-hand to the Finance Minister, but Collins says she has already been in talks with him.

Like all Government agencies, the Police were focused on using "existing resources" more efficiently, said Police spokesperson Ross Henderson. Hence all the mobile and smart technology.

HOW DO WE COMPARE TO OTHER COUNTRIES?

Our 1 to 526 ratio of police per capita is similar to that of Canada, which stood at 1 to 519 last year.

We have far fewer police than Australia, which boasts a 1 to 432 ratio (excluding Northern Territory that have a different data reporting), and the United Kingdom at a ratio of 1 to 430 in 2015.

The United States has a better proportion still, at 1 to 419, according to 2011 figures.

NZ First leader Winston Peters has called for New Zealand to be on par with Australia, which would require around 1900 more Kiwi police officers. His party would get 1000 new cops on the street over three years.

GOVT LOOKING AT EXTRA POLICE?

Although it was never mentioned in the Police Four Year Plan, Judith Collins insisted had been looking into adding more bodies to the force. "Police have talked to me, I've talked to the PM and the Minister of Finance, and we're looking at things," was about as detailed as she would get. "Police can only plan on what they actually have, not what I'm thinking."

The decrease in the number of crimes being resolved under National could be put down to getting more difficult cases, according to Collins.

"Clearly what is being undertaken, like burglaries and stuff, they're much harder to be resolved than crimes of violence," she said.

"Actually some (crime rates) have gone up, some have improved, there's certainly a big drop in recorded crime. "

However, Collins was not prepared to set overall crime rates, apart from on the key areas that the Government has prioritised, such as burglaries: "We don't set 100 targets, we set targets that we actually work on that take up significantly."

CRIMINALS GETTING AWAY WITH MORE CRIME

When police are not effective, Kiwis report fewer crimes, and criminals get away, says Labour Party Police spokesperson Stuart Nash.

There seemed to be a focus away from "community policing" to traditional policing where police lacked the intelligence gathered from living, working and participating in their areas, he said. Therefore, it became harder to resolve and stop crime.

"If it isn't high priority, then the odds of being investigated are not that high," he said. Take the "classic" dine-and-dash reported last week - police said it was a civil matter rather than criminal theft.

"When Kiwis feel as if they're wasting their time by reporting crime, it doesn't get reported. So it looks like crime numbers are falling, but criminals are getting away with a whole lot more than they wouldn't otherwise."

He believed police had all the equipment they needed to do their job, "so the only way to solve this problem is actually more police on the ground".

'FLOW-ON EFFECTS'

Of course the Government have their focus areas - burglaries being one of them, but Police Association president Greg O'Connor said these are just symptomatic of larger issues.

Burglaries, for example, can indicate organised crime and drug issues that are not being addressed. Other "slow-burning issues" have grown in the wake of removing resources to go toward other targets - child abuse during the early 2000s was an example, O'Connor said.

He echoed Nash's calls for more community-based policing, but also said it was up to the public on what they needed to focus on as there were "no easy answers".

An immediate improvement would be to increase the number of police officers, and ease the burden on current staff who are snowed under with call-outs, he said.

"Better technology mitigated the increase in population initially," he said. "But not now."

So can better Tasers, body armour and pepper spray make up for having fewer police officers on the ground? The resounding response, is no. 

 - Stuff

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