Four months ago being a cop in Taranaki became an embarrassment.
Blame for the professional fall from grace came care of technology - a new centralised phone system for contacting police and reporting crime that seemed to leave local cops out of the loop.
Suddenly it was a call centre in Auckland that was deciding whether publicly reported incidents would be investigated, deciding the relevance of information passed on to Taranaki police. Suddenly police didn't know what was happening in their backyard and they began taking flak from people for not investigating crimes they didn't even know had happened.
A serving police officer in Taranaki, who does not want to be named, labelled the change an embarrassment that humiliated police and destroyed the community goodwill so vital to their effectiveness and morale.
"Instead of seeing a police officer people are getting a computer-generated letter saying that after receiving all available evidence they have not been able to find out who is responsible. But we never knew anything about it," he said.
"At the moment it feels like we are not reducing crime but putting a Band-Aid on it."
The new system does not affect the emergency 111 line or the immediate response a call to it will elicit. However it does mean non-emergency calls to report crimes or pass on possibly relevant information are now being answered by someone who is unlikely to know the difference between Eltham and Inglewood.
Another police source, who also did not want to be named, slammed the new phone system as inadequate and pathetic.
"The police hierarchy are hellbent on reducing crime and they are achieving their goal because no-one bothers ringing the police because they can't get through."
While there is no denying reported crime is down, they believe there is also a large increase in unreported crime.
Labour justice spokesman and New Plymouth MP hopeful Andrew Little sees the cost of the change as far outweighing the savings and efficiencies a centralised phone system creates.
"Personal contact with officers is particularly important in smaller communities. There is a sense that there is somebody whose job it is to follow up the big and small things and record the local incidents and put it in perspective," he says.
Information that might appear meaningless to a call centre could be the missing piece of the puzzle to a officer on the ground.
"The cost of it is that small local crimes go unresolved when they needn't. That means people lose confidence in police for smaller matters," he says.
But even before the centralised call centre, before the fours years of budget freeze and resource constraints, police were unlikely to respond to the Taranaki car break-in and stone-throwing incidents that went uninvestigated under the new system, says Police Association President Greg O'Connor.
Police visiting people's homes to investigate relatively minor matters has gone the way of home doctor's visits.
"Nothing is an improvement if you want to speak to a human being but it is better technology and people should still be reporting crime," he says.
The centralisation came at the same time as all police officers were issued with smart phones and tablet computers. The goal was and is to have fewer police waiting by phones at the station and instead have them out on the beat, both investigating crime and preventing it by their presence.
The smart phone and tablet technology is theoretically letting them do in the field much of what they used to do in the office. The savings in time add up to as much as 30 minutes a shift per officer, which is equivalent to 345 additional frontline staff nation-wide.
And the changes might be working. Despite what a little more than 50 per cent of people believe, crime is on the way down.
The latest number-crunching puts it at a 33-year low and the National Government is well on its way to achieving its goal of reducing total crime by 15 per cent by 2017.
There are other figures that would belie those who say the new phone system and crime reporting lines aren't working. Last month the Central Police District received around 14,000 calls and operational manager Inspector Murray Drummond said while he was aware of technical issues and people frustrated with the new system, he was aware of only three public complaints regarding call difficulties.
Whanganui National MP and former policeman Chester Borrows is firmly in support of the changes.
In the past there were times when you could ring a station and get no answer as police were either out on a job or had gone home for the night, he says. Now all calls to police stations are answered, logged and, theoretically at least, messages passed on to relevant stations or individual officers.
"You don't have to cast your mind back too far and you could ring and ring and ring a station and not get anybody and so this is a way of making sure that messages get through and if the message doesn't it's down to human error and not the system," he says.
New Plymouth community policing boss Terry Johnson doesn't shy away from the difficulties police have experienced since the new phone system and crime reporting line were put in place. Police and the public have often been both confused and angered by the changes.
However, he sees it as a massive and necessary improvement that makes individual officers more accessible as they can now all be contacted on their mobile phones. And though there is no public directory of their numbers they are not secret and callers can request to be put through to an individual officer's mobile phone.
In the future police will be more visible and more contactable than ever.
"If you look at society where things have changed quite quickly you are always going to get people on both sides who say the old way was better. But if you don't change you get left behind, so you have to do it," he says.
"In a year from now people won't even remember what it was we were talking about."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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