Eye on Crime: Nights of extreme in Christchurch

Last updated 16:31 27/06/2008
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Christchurch's inner-city crime problems are fuelled by alcohol, so how do we curb the excesses of society? JOHN McCRONE investigates.

Trollied, blitzed, bombed, hammered, slaughtered, comaed. They don't call it binge drinking anymore, the technical term is extreme drinking.

People are drinking to get drunk. And then in Christchurch's city centre they are turning quite bafflingly violent, moronic and anti-social.

This week's Eye on Crime series in The Press, along with a specially commissioned opinion poll, has confirmed Christchurch residents are worried violent street crime is on the increase.

There are the beatings, stabbings and rapes, then an upsurge in nuisance crimes like tagging, vandalism and larrikinism generally. A feral nastiness is getting out of control.

Police say the city is still, in fact, a relatively safe place. We should not exaggerate our problems. We should not live in unnecessary fear. Yet there is indeed a new level of public drunkenness and the wild behaviour that goes with it.

The good news is if we can understand the causes, draw an accurate bead on the issue as a community, we can hope to do something about it. Problems can have solutions.

From his seventh-floor office in Police headquarters, central-city commander Inspector Gary Knowles feels the story is quite specific.

There are the druggies committing burglaries, the boy racers tearing up the back streets. But the real crime spike is right there.

Knowles waves a hand over the bars and clubs of Manchester Street, Cashel Street, South of Lichfield and Oxford Terrace Strip.

Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, he says, the crowds flock into town for a good time. Coming from as far away as Ashburton and Kaikoura, about 10,000 to 15,000 people arrive with the intention to party hard.

A vibrant inner city with a metropolitan buzz is, of course, what we all want. It was the reason we liberalised our drinking laws to have a town fit for grown-ups.

And Knowles says for the most part the centre is trouble-free during the first part of the night, not much different from the polite and civil city we know from the day.

"You have the seven-to-10 crowd who are in town for dinner or a show. Then the 10-to-12 crowd who are the spill-over. A lot of people still in business suits."

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But Knowles says after 1am, the boozing has started to lose its point. A different crowd has drifted in from the suburbs, often youngsters who have been drinking hard and cheaply at home before heading for the action and bright lights at a time when others are tucking themselves into bed.

They will mix with those wandering from bar to bar, now too intoxicated to gain re-entry, and the coach-loads of party-bus patrons, dropped off earlier in the evening, but out for a proper bender in their fancy dress and not yet in a mind to head home.

By about 3am or 4am, the streets are still thronged, but the atmosphere has become volatile, sour.

Knowles says it is the late-hours crowd that has changed. They may have drunk 14 or 15 cans, or an equal number of alcopops. Inside the bars, door staff are in control. But hanging round the streets, any lingering joy fast evaporates.

The milling youths with a fair sprinkling of those in their 30s and 40s become like sharks circling for the first scent of blood in the water. Any excuse to get stupid.

Knowles remarks on a recent incident in Cathedral Square, caught on security cameras.

"A guy had obviously been involved in an altercation. He was followed by two of his attackers who fronted up to him again, knocked him to the ground and started kicking the living s... out of him.

"Then out of left field came another guy who wasn't even involved and joined in with the stomping for the hell of it. I mean, what is the thought process going on there?" says Knowles.

This is the template for most of the street crimes that end up with cracked eye sockets, missing teeth, life-time scars both mental and physical, he says.

Police find the offenders have almost always been drinking heavily for hours. Their victims, too. And the reasons for the flare-ups are random.

 

Knowles says the combatants rarely know each other. Nor is there any ethnic or social divide that might explain the aggression.

Christchurch does not have Polynesian "gangsta" street gangs in the same way as Auckland.

It is not working class against students, or skin-heads against immigrants. Instead it is like fighting with like, a wrong look or shoulder bump being enough to act as a trigger.

Then when the violence happens, it tends to be as excessive as it is senseless.

Knowles says in the old days, if street brawls were about male pride, dropping your opponent to the floor was satisfaction enough. Now it is about knives, bottles, lumps of wood and trampolining on heads. There appears to be a complete disengagement from the human consequences of the attacks.

"It'd be easy to put a label on it and say it's all just gang violence or street kids. But it's not. It's men and women, aged between 16 and 25, who during normal hours would go to university, hold down a job, or perhaps go to school.

"It's not as if they live in the projects and they've got to break loose occasionally. They live in nice homes. And they're actually nice people. But they have a belly-full of alcohol and they change."

From one point of view, the solution to the problem is remarkably simple. Put more police on the streets at three in the morning.

This is exactly what Knowles has done. He says that last July, his central city violent crime figures had soared 10 per cent over target. Extra officers were rostered on the beat with the instruction to take no nonsense.

If youths were seen chucking litter, they would be told to put it in the bin. If they were drinking in public or causing trouble, they would get arrested rather than merely warned.

Knowles says stricter policing means he is now 13% under target for violent offences. But such a response comes at a cost.

"We're having to put all our resources into that little piece of the world," he says.

And then there is the reaction from middle-class parents when they find it is their children who are being arrested. Suddenly the equation changes and it is officious police threatening to blight their darling's future over youthful hi-jinks that got out of hand.

So some longer-term solutions are required to combat this pattern of extreme drinking and moronic behaviour at hours when people might indeed be better off in bed.

For the Eye on Crime series, we canvassed many in the frontline for their opinions, such as Canterbury District Health Board alcohol and drug services clinical head Dr David Stoner, Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams, central city bar entrepreneur Clive Weston, Party Bus Association chairman Ron Mudgway, University of Canterbury Students' Association president Michael Goldstein and Central City Business Association manager Paul Lonsdale.

There was general agreement about both causes and answers.

One key is that Christchurch is not alone. Exactly the same culture of binge drinking and mindless offending has emerged in Australia, Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia anywhere with a similar heritage it seems. Other towns like Timaru, Nelson and Dunedin also feel they have a problem.

Extreme drinking has become a fashion statement. Just a decade ago, the same age group might have been into the rave scene. "Loved-up" happy drugs like ecstasy set the tone for youth culture. But drink has re-emerged as the poison of choice. And the drinks industry must take much of the blame say critics like Williams, of Alcohol Healthwatch.

An advantage alcohol has is that being legal, suppliers are free to develop new markets.

To attract younger drinkers and female drinkers, there were first the high-strength beers, ciders and wines. Then the ready-to-drinks (RTDs) which made strong spirits taste like soda pop. Most recently has come the market for shots liqueur and spirit combinations that can be knocked back fast.

A belly can only cope with so much beer. But a new generation of fast, easy and cheap drinks have been created to allow a new generation of drinkers to achieve their objective of getting paralytic as quickly as possible.

"You can find ready-to-drinks for a dollar a bottle. If you could find soft drinks, or water in fact, for cheaper than that, you'd be lucky," says Williams.

The drinking venues have likewise undergone a revolution. Styled and themed, with loud music and a deliberate party atmosphere, the excessiveness that might once have been sanctioned by an annual orientation blow-out or stag party is now encouraged on any night of the week.

The third ingredient in this cocktail has been the liberalisation of drinking laws.

Williams says this has certainly been the case in New Zealand with the drinking age being dropped to 18 and bars permitted to operate around the clock. Alternative outlets, like party buses and corner dairies, have little trouble getting liquor licences.

She says communities used to be allowed to object to what went on in their neighbourhoods, but the nationalisation of a more liberal framework removed that local right to keep the boozing in check.

So for example, when Christchurch authorities wanted a one-way door policy to stop revellers bar hopping after a certain hour, the alcohol-accord deal had to be negotiated with the traders. Christchurch ended up with a 4am cut-off better than nothing, but far later than the police would have preferred.

The intensity of the drinking itself has become an issue. People are both starting younger and drinking more, with obvious risks to their own health. But it is the connection with a rise in public disorder which is now the focus.

The excuse for the liberalisation of our drinking laws was we would become more civilised drinkers. Look at France, Italy and other Southern European countries where they are allowed to drink all day and from any age. So why has our experience turned out rather different?

Research shows alcohol does not simply make people irrationally aggressive, overwhelming them with the urge to smash up bus stops, kick over rubbish bins and pick fights with random passers-by.

As a drug, alcohol is a little different. Where other drugs of abuse, like opiates, stimulants and psychedelics, are complex molecules that interfere with specific brain pathways, ethanol is a small, highly soluble molecule that leaks everywhere and messes up brain activity in a cruder, more general, fashion.

There are some standard effects. In the early stages alcohol does indeed stimulate the reward centres of the brain, creating that rosy glow. With more drink, the effects become depressive of brain activity. There is a narrowing of the perceptual field, a difficulty in focusing broadly and thinking in a "joined up" way.

Alcohol researchers say this is why drunks start to over-react to whatever catches their attention. It is what helps them forget their inhibitions and be loud and merry in a crowd. But it makes them equally liable to swing the other way if they latch on to some perceived slight or grievance.

Yet it is hard for drunks to claim "the drink made me do it.". Again, some countries like France and Spain have much higher levels of alcohol consumption overall, but get by without the 3am thuggish aggression. So the disinhibiting effect of alcohol must be a more complex matter.

Experts like Williams say it is partly about cultural expectations people act the way they think they should act when they are drunk, and loutishness is now an accepted model and partly it is about the frustrations and negativity of the environment in which the drinking takes place.

Knowles agrees. He believes a big part of the story is the particular geography of central Christchurch.

In other places like Lyttleton or even Wellington, the town is shaped like an amphitheatre. There is a local community and sober eyes are watching. Revellers are at least half aware they are guests in an inhabited area.

But after midnight, central Christchurch is just an anonymous landscape of streets, shops, car yards and office blocks. Once the drinkers are outside of the controlled environment of a bar, there are no obvious checks on their behaviour. The physical setting is as disinhibiting as the effects of any booze.

This seems the best explanation for the evolution of the problem. People are drinking too much, drink is now taken to justify a level of public unruliness, and the inner-city setting conspires almost to encourage a lack of respect for property or other drinkers.

For most of the people The Press spoke to, the solutions are just as plain. The liberalisation of our drinking laws needs to be wound back. And the social setting has to be re-engineered so the drunks do not have the feelings the brakes are off, anything can happen.

In fact, the community reaction is already under way. Even during the week we have been reporting on the issue, the Christchurch City Council announced there will be a tripling of the number of street surveillance cameras and a new Safe City patrol scheme, with eight council security guards on watch until dawn.

Christchurch East MP and Associate Justice Minister Lianne Dalziel who recently spent a Saturday night on the town with police licensing officers to witness the situation first hand also revealed she is urgently drafting a bill to tighten the rules around liquor sales and putting more decision power back in the hands of local communities.

A prime target are the dairies and supermarkets open all hours, selling alcohol at a fraction of the price youngsters would have to pay in the bars.

The really hard part to tackle is the extreme mindset of some youngsters the celebration of getting trollied and hammered, and the degree of violence that can follow. Williams and others feel helpless at explaining this, the way a switch can flick and ordinary people turn stupid.

It could be a reaction to the stresses of modern life, the surfacing of deep resentments. Or it could instead be the result of children now too cossetted and cocooned to understand the reality of their actions.

Some suggest the releaser has been the cartoon violence of video-games and rap music. An earlier generation simply could not imagine such an act as stomping a person's head or using an accelerating car as a weapon. Now in a drunken stupor, feeling needled, a touch miffed, monkey see, monkey do, with little further thought.

Knowles says at this point, you are up against modern culture as a whole. It becomes a difficult problem to fix. But at least turn off the taps and rethink our public spaces in a way that guides the alcohol-befuddled in their decision-making processes.

Knowles adds that the problem may be self-correcting anyway. Party hard was a response to more buoyant economic times. Getting out of their gourds for the weekend was something young people could afford and their employers would wear.

So a recession might see a recreational-fashion change, the bars shutting down, the 3am crowd dispersing. New crime waves like burglaries and petrol-siphoning could well be our talking point within a year.

For the moment, however, it is agreed there is a problem and there is a mood to sort it.

- The Press

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