New Plymouth's CBD a safer environment but alcohol problems remain
Eight years ago alcohol fuelled violence pushed New Plymouth's CBD to crisis point. Leighton Keith reports on what had to change and how.
In 2008 the late night streets of New Plymouth's CBD were like a war zone
Gangs of drunken youths roamed up and down the footpaths preying on the vulnerable enjoying a night out. Sudden explosions of violence were frequent and sickeningly brutal.
Grievous assaults were up 20.3 per cent and few considered the city a safe place after dark.
Much of the blame was directed at cheap, high-percentage premixed drinks popular at the time. But there were other factors that didn't help.
Alcohol bans were irregularly enforced, video surveillance was patchy and there was little communication between bar security staff meaning when troublesome patrons were kicked out of one place they could simply walk down to the next and start all over again.
These factors combined to help create an environment where the violence seemed to be escalating without end. One on one punch ups quickly devolved into group melees. Those who fell were kicked and stomped on the ground without mercy.
At the time Senior Sergeant Selwyn Wansbrough, a 32 year police veteran, said the brutal attacks were some of the worst he had seen.
"It just blows me away that people are so prepared to stomp on the heads and limbs of others while they are laying on the ground. It is that level of violence that is so shocking," Wansbrough said.
Doc van Praagh, co-owner of New Plymouth's Crowded House and The Mayfair, remembers those days with a shudder.
"It was pretty horrendous. The police always had the paddy wagon out and they were kept pretty busy," he says.
But those days have gone, he says. Things are different now.
"We've created a culture where people know that we won't put up with drunken antics, underage drinking and gross intoxication.
We still have to be vigilant, it's probably a bit easier we don't get the big brawls like we used to," he says.
"You are still going to have that bad element but I think it has gone from the CBD."
That culture shift began in 2008 when the violence reached a crescendo and the Taranaki Daily News launched a campaign dubbed "Save Our Streets". This lead to public marches through the streets condemning the violence plaguing the city.
This became the catalyst for unprecedented co-operation between the police, New Plymouth District Council, the public and alcohol licensees in an attempt to stamp out the vicious assaults and return order to the CBD.
From this emerged Mellow Yellow, which involved bar security staff wearing bright yellow jackets and carrying two-way radios allowing them to keep in contact with each other police and CBD camera operators. Additional cameras were also added to monitor the city streets and extra signs went up advising people of the cameras and the city's liquor ban areas were vigorously enforced.
Combined with the New Plymouth CBD liquor accord which formalised regular information sharing between liquor licensees, police and the district licensing authority and eight years on the general consensus is the bad old days are over.
"The feeling is that the streets are a lot safer out there," Police Taranaki area commander Inspector Keith Borrell says.
"We've had some pockets recently of the one punch scenario but we don't have those groups of thugs running around the centre of the city like we did back then.
"Calls for service to the central city, especially on Friday and Saturday nights has reduced from what it used to be."
While Bertie Burleigh, the owner of inner city bar Peggy Gordon's agrees the city's streets are safer he credits external factors as having just as much impact as the local changes.
"I think that the little rat-bags have moved on because of the increased security, because they are being watched no matter where they go," Burleigh says.
"I believe that there has been a direct improvement. But in saying that the streets are a lot quieter as well."
Lower drink driving limits, a dour economic climate and a lack of public transport were keeping people out of the city.
"I believe that some of the laws that we have pushed through in the last few years have pushed the drinkers back to their houses.
"They've totally changed the parameters of how the town works."
Inner-city bars has fewer people using them, he says.
"The economic environment has changed, we are not getting the same numbers of people through town at all, I think we are down as low as 50 per cent of what used to be there.
"You could fire a cannon through town between 8pm and midnight and you would be lucky to hit anybody."
Burleigh said while the city's central business district streets had been cleaned up he suspected much of the alcohol fuelled violence had just moved to the suburbs.
The figures back him up. Borrell says police had noticed a trend of more people being drunk in the home than there used to be.
"That maybe some of the reason why we are seeing an increase of serious assaults in the homes," Borrell says.
However he says the increased awareness and condemnation of family violence could have also contributed to the increase in reported violence in the suburbs.
University of Canterbury criminologist Greg Newbold says the initiatives taken in New Plymouth's central city were well established methods to combat offending but it doesn't mean the problem is solved.
"If you want to remove crime from an area the best way of doing it is to keep it well lit, control the alcohol consumption and police it," Newbold says.
"If you do that you will knock the crime back in that area and that's probably what has happened in New Plymouth."
However Newbold says crime would never be eliminated, especially while alcohol is so readily available and social acceptable.
"You can reduce crime but you can't remove it.
"You will remove it from some areas and it will go elsewhere but it doesn't mean it will be there to the same extent."
Alcohol is involved in about 60 per cent of all violent incidents. It is a trigger to violence because it reduced people's inhibitions, Newbold says.
"The things that you would normally not do because you fell inhibited, those barriers get released by alcohol," he says.
"So whatever you feel like doing you are more likely to do."
HIGH PROFILE ATTACKS
FEBRUARY 2016: A 20-year-old man was king hit, knocked out and cracked his head on the pavement as he fell on Currie St about 3am. The man suffered two brain bleeds and spent time in Wellington Hospital in the intensive care unit before being transferred back to Taranaki Base.
JANUARY 2015: Two men were hospitalised after separate king-hit attacks in New Plymouth. One man was left unconscious and spent the night in Taranaki Base Hospital's intensive care unit after being attacked outside a central city bar. Two days later another man was taken to hospital after being knocked out at a party in Mill Rd.
JANUARY 2014: Murray Akuhata Parekura punched his victim in the head knocking him to the ground on Currie St before stomping on him as he lay on the ground. Judge Geoffrey Ellis told Parekura his victim could have easily died and he could have been facing a charge of murder. Instead Parekura was sentenced to four months home detention.
May 2014: Three Southland Sharks basketball players start an all-in brawl at Crowded House after being refused entry. A security staff member was "king hit" and knocked unconscious, another was kicked repeatedly in the head and another suffered cuts to his face. The trio received a range of sentences from community detention to community work and had to pay their victims emotional harm reparation.
JULY 2010: A man was stabbed through the cheek and tongue on Egmont and King Sts, near Frederics Bar and almost bleed to death. Rico Huriano Manuella Mareikura was later jailed for 5½ years for the attack.