Waikato's rise in robberies has left workers living in fear
Waikato dairy and service station workers are living in fear as the region experiences relentless robberies and ram raids by violent and fearless teenagers.
Exact figures could not be provided by police without an Official Information Act request, but incidents recorded by Stuff reporters show two stores a day are being struck in the region.
There were more than 30 reported robberies and burglaries of businesses in the first two weeks of August.
Some small business owners are so frightened they are standing outside their stores to avoid becoming trapped and are even looking to hire security guards.
Stuff visited more than 17 dairies in Hamilton on Friday and not one owner wanted to be identified for fear of becoming a target.
Tuhikaramea Road Kiwi Liquor store owner Jay Nain said many liquor stores and dairy workers now fear going to work.
"We don't feel safe," said Nain, who's been robbed twice this year.
"It used to be a good environment here - you came to work and enjoyed it. Now you always feel like you don't know what's going to happen the next second.
"We stand outside. It's cold, but if we sit inside, someone could come in and hit you, because they are aggressive these days."
Last month, five masked men stormed Nain's store armed with an iron bar, threatening staff before stealing alcohol, money and cigarettes.
It was 4.30pm on a Wednesday.
"We've had two robberies here in daylight time. It's not a single group, it's heaps of teenagers. But what can you do?"
Nain, who's owned the store for the past five years, said he now closes early on weekend nights.
"The last four years were good - we enjoyed our work - but this year, we think twice when we open the shop. It's more scary because it's each day, every day, it's happening."
Waikato CIB Detective Sergeant Scott Neilson said police have seen an increase over the past few months in aggravated robberies, smash-and-grabs and ram-raids, typically targeting dairies and service stations.
"It tends to be a group of offenders who are motivated and those motivations generally lead to an increase in offences," Neilson said.
"It is scary for those workers and that's why we take it so seriously, as we do with any violent crimes," Neilson said.
Those committing these crimes are generally aged between 15 and 20, he said.
"The groups have been targeting cash and cigarettes. And it would be fair to say that people are receiving these products and that's where vigilance comes into it. If you are being approached with cheap items that appear to be below their sale price, we want to hear from you."
Police are making arrests, he said.
Six offenders have been arrested in the past two weeks. All were from Hamilton.
"Each offence is investigated thoroughly, to the nth degree. We have had increases in the past and once we have made arrests, we have seen a decrease."
Z corporate communications manager Jonathan Hill said there seemed to be a new phenomenon in the Waikato of organised violent armed robberies.
"Our staff in the Waikato have been left really, really shaken by what's been happening. There seems to be some level of organisation in the Waikato - once one group is apprehended, there's another ready to take their place."
There is no doubt the price of cigarettes is driving these crimes, he said.
"There is clearly a black market for tobacco and these crimes are being designed to supply the black market. There's very little to be gained from doing this and the chance of being caught is almost 100 per cent."
Founder of Waikato's Ethnic Business Association, Jay Randhawa, said robberies have escalated to the point that many dairy workers were looking to put up cages around counters.
"People are used to break-ins, but I have never seen so many armed robberies. It's just getting worse and worse.
"This is their livelihoods. And their own safety and their staff safety is at risk."
Some families no longer allow female or elderly family members to work in the shop, he said. Dairies also struggle to find casual staff.
"Who would want to lose their father, or mother? They're trying to arm themselves to save their businesses, but that's no good, either."
Dairy owners spend 80 or more hours a week in their stores, which provide income for entire inter-generational families, he said.
"In our culture, we worship our workplace, the way we earn money. It's not a case of selling up - we have an emotional attachment."
Many small business owners want to see the criminal age lowered and harsher penalties enacted to deter offending by these teens, whom Randhawa said seem to be fearless and committing crimes for something to do.
Neilson said police are also working to prevent these crimes by deploying extra patrols in high-risk areas and working with dairy owners one-on-one and as a community to improve safety.
"We need the community to be vigilant - report any suspicious activity, any vehicles with people travelling inside masked up, and report your stolen vehicles.
"There are members of the community out there who know the offenders - they have a responsibility to report that to police."