Out late at night in a good cause
As most of the city sleeps, a group of volunteers patrol the streets, looking for trouble and helping to prevent it. James Greenland joins Nelson's Community Patrol.
It's 11pm, Friday. A full moon casts a soft light on Nelson city. That should help us. We are on the lookout for lunatics.
Town is crawling with questionably-dressed youngsters - residue from the Carnivale which every year takes over Trafalgar St after the Masked Parade.
Anyone less experienced might be intimidated by seeking out the city's dark recesses. But this couple are calm and confident. After 11 years volunteering with Community Patrol, and 56 years of marriage, Robin and David Hall are resolute. They know what they are doing.
They have planned to pick me up from Paddy's Knob lookout as soon as police briefing finishes. My cellphone buzzes. It's Robin.
We don't expect a busy night, she tells me. Most of the Carnivale revellers will hang around town, under the watch of a myriad police officers and street patrollers - who, in their orange high-vis vests, take care of drunks with fists full of free lollipops and condoms.
Our mandate is to search the city's nooks, crannies and out-of-the-way places. Car parks, schoolyards, industrial parks, alleyways. Places where the only people we are likely to find do not want to be found.
The Community Patrol are the police's "eyes and ears" on the ground, at places otherwise out of sight of the resource-limited authorities.
From the lookout I can see our first patrol point, the Lions Playground car park at Tahunanui Reserve - an after-hours hangout for members of Nelson's motoring community.
David and Robin approach in the patrol's new Rav4, recently donated by Nelson dealership MS Ford.
David tells me he and Robin don't usually leave the vehicle on patrol, for their safety. Robin can record registration plates and note descriptions of trouble-makers through the car's windows. A two-way police radio lets her report anything sinister they come across, and also updates the patrol on what police officers are up to in the city.
David rolls us smoothly down the hill, toward the Lions Playground. Idling at the traffic lights I can make out seven parked cars lurking in the shadows. I still can't tell if there are people in them.
As we enter the car park, Robin notices the lighting at the newly-constructed Tahuna Youth Park plaza.
"Police are not too happy with those. ‘Moths are attracted to light," she says, implying it's the same with people, the kind that are out to make trouble.
The plaza is empty but as we make a second pass around the reserve one of the parked cars suddenly swarms to life. A large shadow emerges from the driver's seat.
"Yeah! We love you," sarcastically bellows a young guy in a black hoodie.
Stepping around his lowered, tinted wagon, he gestures at us as we drive past. He has to lift his arm from his passenger's waist. She's wearing a tight pink top and a tiny black leather skirt.
Robin records the car's registration number and directs her husband to pull over near the entrance of the car park, her voice not quite as calm as before.
"We park here so we can get away in a hurry if we need to," David tells me.
We only sit for two minutes before the first car's headlights flicker on, and it rumbles off into the night.
"See, we don't know what we have broken up now," David says, suggesting the group might have been drinking, or planning a street race.
The others follow. Another two minutes and the car park is emptied.
"We've upset them a little bit, which is the aim of the game," Robin says, confidence returned to her voice.
"Mission accomplished," she says, She's recorded the regos and noted what the occupants were wearing, to assist police if those vehicles cause any trouble later on. She says she would have been on the radio immediately if she'd seen anybody drinking.
"It can be quite exhausting," David says as we drive to the next patrol point.
He and Robin are retired. David made his career driving milk trucks in the Waikato, and before that grew tobacco in Dovedale. Robin was a community social worker who ran foodbanks and the likes, she tells me.
I ask her what she's learned after more than a decade on patrol.
"You learn to see with different eyes, believe you me."
Robin recalls a tale, about a community patroller in Wellington who, some years ago, inadvertently came across a murderer disposing of a body in a dark place, off the beaten track. That person reported their sighting to the police, and their evidence lead directly to a murder prosecution, Robin says. She's never seen anything as dramatic as that, although I sense that a part of her would like to.
There are about 24 volunteers in the Nelson Community Patrol squad, operating in teams of three every Friday and Saturday night. Usually, two go on patrol, while one stays and monitors CCTV footage of the inner city, from a space within the Nelson police station.
David and Robin patrol one night each month. Their "craziest" experience was when eggs were thrown at the patrol car, Robin says, adding that alcohol is almost always to blame when people cause problems on the weekend.
That said, she has no doubt that Nelson police's policy of zero-tolerance toward alcohol in the inner-city is working.
"It's just amazingly better now there is zero-tolerance to drinking.
"You just get taken away now, no warning, no nothing."
Robin says the late bus has been cleaned-up too. The service has been modified so that more people are taken home from town than are brought in, pre-loaded on alco-pops, she says.
Even the city's bouncers have donned bright jackets, called "mellow yellow", which apparently have a calming effect on intoxicated trouble-makers.
"In the last two years, you would hardly recognise Bridge St now," Robin tells me.
We check Parker's Cove car park (empty), then drive to Nelson Airport. There are no signs of life, nor evidence of any smash-and-grabs, so we move on.
The police radio squawks to life: a man in Stoke, wearing a black hoodie and described as "might be fat" has been reported as chasing a young woman, a nurse, while she was walking to work. No-one has seen him since. A short silence, then a response from someone on the radio's other end. They say there are people loitering around Main Road Stoke, "but none who fit that description". Static, then silence.
We check Nayland College, then historic Broadgreen House. Robin has volunteered here for 15 years, even longer than with the NCP, so the colonial cottage's security has special significance for her.
"There was a lot of trouble here last summer", with people sitting and smoking on the veranda and smashing windows, Robin says. "It's a fire hazard."
Echodale Place industrial park is empty, apart from a garage full of late-working mechanics. "We won't report that, because that's okay," she explains.
Up to Saxton Stadium. The gates are closed, as they should be. David tells me we are as far south as the patrol stretches, unless police specifically ask them to check out Richmond.
Not tonight. The Masked Parade and Carnivale was bright and loud enough to attract all potential trouble-makers in the region, police reckoned at the briefing.
We cruise through Karaka St, Stoke, but it seems like everyone is out, or asleep. The Halls' own house is around the corner, so we swing by for good measure and peace of mind. Clear, check.
Isel Park is clear too, but has been a hot spot for the patrol in the past.
It's closing in on 1am. That's when David and Robin head back to police HQ for a coffee and a chat with the on-duty officers. Sometimes they will stay out until 4am, but on quiet nights like this evening they might end their shift early.
It's a good time to ask them, why do they do it? Something must have kept them going, up late working the beat for the past 11 years.
"When we went in to the station before briefing this morning, two officers gave us the biggest hug," Robin says.
"It's very rewarding. We have a rapport with the police now. It's very rare we go in and someone doesn't know us.
"We have worked hard and built up trust with the police. We are very professional about it."
So you enjoy it?
"Heck yes," Robin remarks without pause.
"The police are the most amazing people, they really are, you have no idea. The abuse they have to put up with is just terrible. I have learned a lot of new language in this job, believe me."
David says it succinctly, quietly.
"We don't know what we have broken up."
He admits that he doesn't like to think about it, the what-ifs - what might have happened had they not scattered this aggressive gathering, or disrupted that convoy of drunken racers.
But he knows, I sense, that he and Robin over the years have probably prevented more than one drunken car crash, or assault, or crime of the night that would otherwise have offended the law-abiding community.
By preventing trouble before it brews, they may even have saved lives.
We sail through the Tahuna intersection and back into the Lions Playground car park where we started our patrol. It's just before 1am, and the full moon is still reflecting on the city. But the car park is empty this time. "Not a soul to be seen," David reports for the record.
Robin smiles at her partner.
"I think we have cleared them out, mate," she says.
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