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Pounding a Helpful Beat

1 Mar 2017
Catriona MacLennan
This article was published 7 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

What would happen if Police and the justice system put less emphasis on punishing people and more on steering them towards support? Catriona MacLennan looks at three recent New Zealand initiatives aimed at reducing drug crime recidivism and increasing community engagement. The results are surprising even the boys and girls in blue, but will these new approaches be allowed to take?

Mid-evening at the Counties Manukau Police watch-house on a Friday night, and activity rapidly starts amping up. A procession of Police cars pulls into the underground garage, ready to transfer those arrested to the custody unit.

People who have been arrested are searched, advised of their rights, fingerprinted and photographed. As soon as control is transferred from the arresting officer,  Authorised staff do a risk assessment. They ask detainees whether they have taken drugs, been drinking or are suicidal. This helps determine whether a doctor or psychiatric team needs to be called and how frequently those in custody should be checked.

Working alongside the Police in the underground complex is 46-year nursing veteran Sally Crene. She is in the watchhouse four nights a week, observing from the time detainees are brought into the custody suite. Her long years of experience and training as both a mental health nurse and a general nurse mean she can rapidly identify people who need mental health care or immediate medical assistance.

She says at least half the people who come through the custody unit are affected by mental health problems or drugs or both.

“For me, it’s about deciding which is the primary one and then the urgency. Some people I see again and again and again.”

Crene’s computer gives speedy access to previous medical histories and a raft of other information. Detainees she thinks might need help are put in one of three observation cells in front of the central hub so she can watch them and start her own risk assessment.

Crene says it is difficult to identify heavy cannabis users as they don’t display any signs. She regards methamphetamine, synthetic cannabis and cheap alcohol as the most dangerous substances.

“It seems to turn them into raging demons. You see that when they sober up, and they say, ‘Did I do that?’”

She can often establish a better rapport with people than the Police can, as she is not seen as an enemy in the way those who have arrested detainees are.

“They can be absolutely foul to the Police, and I get ‘Ma’am’.”

All I can do is a little motivational stuff – put an idea into their head. Give them choices. There are so many social issues that complicate this. It’s not just alcohol and drugs.

Sally Crene

The assessments she does are forwarded to a  multidisciplinary team for review at a later time. If Crene thinks people are suffering from drug  dependence, she refers them to the Alcohol and Drug Helpline. She also hands out an Alcohol and Other Drug Services map, which leads people through a series of questions and then gives them a range of options for seeking help.

“All I can do is a little motivational stuff – put an idea into their heads. Give them choices. There are so many social issues that complicate this. It’s not just alcohol and drugs. It’s chaotic family background plus or minus abuse; an education system that cannot cope or won’t cope with behavioural issues. For every person you have with a drug or alcohol problem at that level, you have got a whole family affected.”

One man who was arrested was someone Crene had seen before. She was concerned about his level of distress and realised he was at risk.

The man was a heavy cannabis user, and Crene arranged for medication so he could sleep properly, instead of banging his head against the wall and ramping up his agitation. She then talked to him and explained he could get the medication from his GP, and then told him what other help was available.

“It’s sowing the seeds and giving him options. It’s tiny, but you take that as positive. On a regular basis, I pick up people nobody else would have identified through the system because I’m here. I can make a difference for people that nobody else can because they fall through little cracks.”

Police Counties Manukau Operations Manager Inspector Tracy Phillips says she keeps in mind that the custody unit is not a place of punishment but a detention area. Those held there have not been convicted of an offence.

“I always think we can do things better.”

Police were given a massive wake-up call when men died in the custody unit in February 2014 and May 2015, and multiple investigations followed. The man who died in 2014 was 20 years old, and the Independent Police Conduct Authority found Police failed to get him urgent medical help.

It’s sowing the seeds and giving him options. It’s tiny, but you take that as positive. On a regular basis, I pick up people nobody else would have identified through the system because I’m here. I can make a difference for people that nobody else can because they fall through little cracks.

Sally Crene

Phillips says the tragedies showed the Police they had to learn from the deaths and do things differently. Seriously drug-impaired and intoxicated people used to be taken to the cells to sober up overnight, but they now go to a hospital emergency department instead.

Phillips has run a Humanity Project in the custody suite. A Facebook post invited artists to make submissions for decorating the cells. Now, nine of the formerly two-toned mint and green cells are covered in murals done by Papatoetoe High School students, artists and others.

One cell resembles an aquarium, with the walls and ceiling painted blue and fish swimming everywhere. Positive messages are painted on the fish. Other art depicts Kiwiana, including a buzzy bee, Pasifika culture and a beach scene.

Phillips also noticed that almost none of the food given to detainees was being eaten. Different meals were sourced that were far more palatable, as well as being faster for the Police to heat up.

Awareness of the boredom suffered by those in custody led to the creation of a library, and the Health Promotion Agency has provided cards with prevention information.

Staff working in the custody suite are expected to think about how they can improve the unit. Officers are rotated regularly and are encouraged to spend time talking to detainees and giving them options, with force the very last resort.

“It’s really important our authorised officers get this – [the benefits of] the time you spend in talking someone through it rather than typing a Use of Force report.”

A Customer Services Manager interviews people who have been detained to get their feedback and see how improvements can be made. Phillips says the comments are “really varied”, but Police were surprised to be given extremely positive  feedback by a driver who was tasered after fleeing and being chased down. The driver said his actions meant the Police response was justified.

Before they leave the custody unit in the morning, detainees are asked if they have a drug or alcohol problem and want a referral for help.

Phillips says this is left until last, because drug-impaired people probably will not remember what is said if Police officers speak to them  when they are first brought into custody. Phillips is enthusiastic about the benefits of having a nurse  based in the watch-house.

“It’s amazing having Sally down here. She can bring value over the weekend.”

The scheme under which Crene works is called the Mental Health/Alcohol and Other Drug Watch-house Nurse Pilot Initiative and began at the Christchurch Central and Counties Manukau Police Stations in mid-2008.

The pilots ran until June 2010, and an evaluation of the first 18 months of operation was  completed in August 2010. The report concluded that the watch-house nurses were “overwhelmingly” meeting the objective of assessing and assisting in the clinical management of detainees experiencing drug, alcohol or mental health problems in custody.

In all, 3,850 assessments were done out of a total of 17,659 people detained in Christchurch, and 1,986 assessments were completed out of a total of 27,272 detainees at Counties Manukau. The evaluation found the nurses were providing increased access to mental health services, better information about drug and alcohol services, referrals and reconnections with mental health and alcohol and drug services.

Thirty-eight percent of the Counties Manukau  assessments and 11 percent of the Christchurch assessments resulted in referrals to treatment providers. Christchurch now has the nurses available 24 hours a day, while in Counties Manukau, they are at the watch-house part-time.

Canterbury District Health Board General Manager Mental Health Toni Gutschlag says the pilot demonstrated there are significant benefits in having mental health nurses based at watch-houses 24/7 and working closely with Police.

“It has resulted in lives being saved, and that’s something you can’t put a price on. It’s also strengthened our relationships with Police and their understanding of mental health issues in our community.”

Despite that, Canterbury is the only place to have nurses working in the watch-house at all times, and the scheme has not been rolled out to areas beyond the pilot regions.

The nurses in watch-houses scheme is not the only initiative Police are now using to tackle drugs more constructively. When they received intelligence in 2015 about a methamphetamine ring centred on Te Aroha, they tried a new approach to drug offending and set in motion an initiative that is now spreading around New Zealand.

The Police planned an undercover investigation, code-named Operation Daydream, involving officers from Te Aroha, Paeroa, Matamata and Waiuku.

Around the same time, a crime prevention co-ordinator position had been created on the Organised Crime Squad. Police accordingly decided to build crime prevention and reducing drug use into Operation Daydream.

Detective Ian Foster of Waikato Police says making contact with the people using the drugs became an integral part of planning for the operation.

“Previously, we would not have done that. We were also looking at community awareness. We realised that a lot of people know about meth but don’t know the signs and symptoms to look at for family and friends.”

Forty Police officers swooped on properties in the four towns, arresting eight people. A ninth, Anna Merrianne Muir, was picked up at a service station in Bombay, where drugs and cash were found in her car. She pleaded guilty to methamphetamine and cannabis offences and was sentenced to six years and two months’ jail.

The next phase of Operation Daydream then swung into action. Police spoke to the people whose names they’d gathered, organised a community talk in Te Aroha and used information obtained to assist the community in grappling with meth. They also produced a leaflet to hand out with information about support services relating to drugs and alcohol, fines, gambling, family violence, youth and parenting issues. Taking this approach also gave the Police insight into how some of them had started taking drugs and why they were using them. Foster says Police were initially not sure how these people would react to being approached by Police but found most of the interactions constructive.

“The majority of people we spoke to were really positive. They spoke to us, and it was a really positive interaction – it surprised us.”

Since then, Police have refined their approach. For example, they did not initially take support services staff with them when they approached users as they were concerned about risk.

There has also been a lot of interest in the approach from Police in other parts of the country, as well as from the Ministry of Health. A case study of Operation Daydream is being prepared, and Foster and Detective Scott Neilson gave a presentation about the exercise to other Police before winning an Excellence citation at the 2016 Problem-Oriented Policing Awards.

Foster says the key outcome has been a significant drop in crime in the area. Four months prior to the operation, crime was relatively high, but it fell markedly afterwards, and the crime statistics for the 2015/16 Christmas and holiday period were the lowest in three years.

Local councils are also supporting the initiative, which has been rolled out to as many as six communities in eastern Waikato.

“There’s been huge positive feedback from the community,” says Foster.

“We were really quite stunned by how successful it was. As Police, we have only a limited amount of time with these users, but sometimes we’re the first people who can say to a person, ‘We know you’re using.’ Family and friends – they can deny it, but they’re shocked when we turn up on their doorstep and say, ‘We know you’re using.’ We’re just the catalyst to push them in the right direction.”

In Wellington, Police adopted the new Daydream approach for Operation Oak, which ended in December 2016. It involved Police targeting a man they believed was dealing and culminated in the execution of 13 search warrants and the arrests of seven people. Around 50 grams of meth, $40,000 of cash and stolen property were recovered in the raids.

Detective Senior Sergeant Tim Leitch of the Wellington District Drugs and Organised Crime Team says that, over the past year, the Police have changed their mindset and started thinking about the people who buy drugs and about the families of suppliers – including the risks to children living where drugs are being bought and smoked.

“We are still focusing on arresting and charging those who sell drugs like meth, as prosecution and imprisonment of these offenders leads to disruption of the supply chain and prevention of offending. However, we also realise it is important to engage with those who are purchasing the drugs, as they will almost certainly have addiction issues, and their use will be having adverse impacts on their lives including their wider families’ wellbeing.”

Leitch says Police during  operation Oak found that some of the meth purchasers were deeply affected by their use, and it was having significant impacts on their lives.

“[T]he interaction with the Police was the catalyst they needed to effect positive change. Others we spoke to refused to acknowledge that their drug use was a problem and did not want any support or advice. Even with these people, however, we hope that, simply by raising the issue with them and suggesting they make contact with support services, in time, it may be the catalyst they need to reconsider how their drug use might be impacting their lives.”

Police identified the people buying meth and interviewed as many as possible. They found a number had significant methamphetamine problems they were hiding from their families. Families were struggling to pay for housing and other costs when several hundred dollars a week was going out of the budget to buy meth.

“That was quite an eye opener for us, but also for the families and partners. The partners might not have known about the meth use.”

Police referred drug buyers to the Meth Helpline as well as to services dealing with family violence and child protection. People the Police were able to identify received personal visits to offer help. Leitch says about half of the 15 or so people visited reacted positively and appeared to want to address their issues.

Sixty more people were either not identifiable or not locatable. Those people were sent bulk text messages advising that the alleged supplier had been arrested and inviting them to contact the Police or support services if they had a meth problem.

Leitch says it is not yet clear whether support agencies have sufficient resources to cope if Police start referring more people to them. He acknowledges that such services generally struggle for funding and says Police need to talk to them about that.

However, he believes the new approach will pay dividends. Having been in his position for a number of years, he is used to seeing the same people repeatedly coming through the system. Addressing addiction issues will reduce recidivism and prevent crime and victimisation.

“I do expect it will spread across the country. It’s the way of the future, really.”


In Tairawhiti, the Police call the new initiative Policing, Rehabilitation and Offering an alternative (PRO). After witnessing the impact of meth on the community, Police in 2016 began cooperating with iwi and support services to provide help to drug users.

One operation in Tairawhiti involved prosecuting 48 people. Thirteen were remanded in custody or bailed to places outside the area, but the other 35 all took up PRO and completed counselling for drug depedency, and only three had reoffended by the end of the year. Police are now working closely with Te Rānanganui o Ngāti Porou, Te Whare Oranga and Te Kupenga addiction services.

Waitemata is also trying the approach. Following a meth operation, Police texted 140 suspected drug buyers and offered them a helpline, addiction services or contact with a detective. Officers were surprised when 20 people chose to contact Police directly asking for help.

The third strand of this breaking-the-cycle approach being adopted by the Police is marae justice panels.

Also called iwi or community justice panels, these have been piloted in several locations around the country. Roger Kemp of Canterbury Community Law was the project developer of the first panel. Offenders who accept guilt in cases of low-level offending carrying jail sentences of six months or less may be referred to the panel at the discretion of the Police.

Three community representatives from fields such as schools, churches or sports clubs sit on the panels and meet with the offender for 30 minutes to discuss the crime and what is happening in the offender’s life.

Offenders are asked about their addictions and referred to programmes or counselling. Participants might be required to research and write an essay about the long-term impact of cannabis on the brain and the implications of convictions for young people’s futures.

Offenders sign contracts and, if they fail to comply, will be referred back to the Police for prosecution. Compliance runs at around 85 to 90 percent, compared with 30 percent for court orders.

Kemp says the Christchurch panel deals with offences for a cost of $350 to $400 each, compared with between $3,000 and $4,000 for a crime dealt with in the justice system. Recidivism is also markedly reduced.

Manukau Urban Māori Authority (MUMA) CEO Willie Jackson is enthusiastic about the benefits of the panels operating in his area. He says demand for them is huge, and if MUMA had more funding, they could be used far more frequently as a more constructive approach to offending.

“There’s enough crime out there for us to be doing this every single day – twice a day. We do it a couple of times a week. We’re not talking high-level crime. We’ve got qualified people, skilled people. It’s a good response from our community.”

Jackson says the panels “work a treat”. “We want to keep people out of the justice system. The idea is to get them early. We believe in second, third, fourth chances. It just gives them an opportunity, and it’s good for them to see that Police are not the enemy.”

Community Law Centres o Aotearoa CEO Liz Tennet says the panels to date have been successful, and she would like to see a similar model run by iwi and rolled out nationwide. Community Law Centres have done detailed work about this proposal. They approached all iwi in New Zealand to consult them, leading to the Community Justice Panels, Iwi & Marae Justice Panels – Consultation Project: Final Report published in September 2016.

An evaluation of the Christchurch panel was completed in November 2012, and a report on the iwi panels piloted in the Hutt Valley, Gisborne and Manukau in 2014 and 2015 was released in June 2016.

The 2012 evaluation concluded that the Christchurch community justice panel was an effective alternative resolution method that contributed to reducing prosecutions for low-level offending. Seventy-nine percent of offenders fully met conditions set, while a further 10 percent complied at least partially.

The Christchurch panel generally set two or three conditions for offenders, with community service being the most common requirement for those not previously known to Police. Apologies were required in 69 percent of cases involving people with a prior offending history.

The evaluation noted that the panel approach had been tested on a small number of higher-threshold offences with some success but said the eligibility criterion of offences with a maximum of six months’ jail was to be retained for the foreseeable future.

The evaluation of the Hutt Valley, Gisborne and Manukau pilots identified three criteria as crucial to the success of iwi panels:

  • The use of tikanga Māori to uphold the mana of those participating.
  • Prominent iwi/Māori leadership being evident at each panel site to promote the panels both internally and to the community.
  • The selection of experienced and skilled providers.

The paper said offenders interviewed for the evaluation were very satisfied with the process and the support from providers. However, few victims attended the panels, and limited information about the views of victims could therefore be obtained.

Police Deputy Chief Executive Superintendent Wally Haumaha says the evaluations showed the panels can help to identify factors associated with offending and assist offenders with the services and support they need to get their lives on a more positive path.

“These supports can also help achieve broader social sector outcomes for people, by helping people obtain driver’s licences, access treatment and support services, undertake volunteer work and engage in education or training programmes. Work is under way to consider future funding arrangements.”

Tennet says representations have been made to the Ministry of Justice about extending the panels, and the Police are strongly in favour of the initiative.

“I know the Ministry of Justice has done some work on it, but we think they could be doing a lot more. We would like to see them focus on this as a potential policy initiative.”

Tennet acknowledges that the panels require funding but says the model is very economical. Its other benefits are the community involvement and the mana and respect inherent in the process.

Justice Minister Amy Adams viewed the operation of the community justice panel in Christchurch, and Tennet says the Minister was very impressed. Kemp states that those involved with the pilots are wondering why nothing more appears to be happening. He says the massive cost savings demonstrated by the process mean that funding is not the issue.

“I just don’t know why the government’s taking the length of time it is to do this, because community justice panels tick every box.”

Kemp understands there might be progress in rolling out additional panels in 2018 but expects the government will change them significantly if it does create more. He has spoken about the Christchurch panel in other parts of the country and says there has been a lot of enthusiasm and that there would be enough community support now for panels in Hamilton, Rotorua, Central Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington.

Consultant Jane Troughton worked with Kemp on the core principles for the panels and was involved in consultations about the initiative around the country. She says the response was tremendous and, like others, she is puzzled about the current stalemate.

Troughton believes that, as well as offering cost savings, the panels change community dynamics because they enable the community to be involved in justice processes. New Zealand has a high imprisonment rate and a punitive approach to offending, and Troughton says the panels provide an opportunity for face-to-face resolution and a different approach.

Justice Minister Amy Adams did not respond to a request for comment about the future either of marae justice panels or of the Alcohol or Other Drug Treatment Courts. The latter, which have been running in Auckland and Waitakere since 2012, are nearing the end of their five-year pilots.

It is little surprise that more-constructive approaches have been initiated and piloted by those working on the ground, rather than by politicians or government ministries.

Anyone working in the legal system quickly becomes familiar with the sad parade of people who cycle regularly through the Police cells and the courts. In the past, the system spent vast amounts of money arresting and processing these people but did little about diagnosing the causes of their offending or supporting them to overcome their problems.

Referring anyone using drugs for help, posting nurses in watch-houses, marae justice panels and the Alcohol or Other Drug Treatment Courts are all efforts to adopt a more-effective approach and break the cycle of hopelessness and offending. What is needed now from the government is recognition of the demonstrated benefits of these initiatives, a long-term approach to solving rather than simply managing problems, and financial support. The programmes clearly ought to be rolled out nationwide, and it is up to the government to make that happen.


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