It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks for the Police Minister.

She’s been out on the circuit, putting out press releases and doing interviews. She’s been celebrating the additional 1800 recruits who have joined the police force, and in doing so congratulating herself and her Government colleagues for the fact that the people feel safer.

Except we don’t. There is plenty of spin from this Government. Some of it, they get away with. But this one won’t fly.

The reason? We don’t feel safer. In fact, it’s worse than that: some of us are downright scared. Scared to walk home from school. Scared to go to the supermarket. Scared to walk down the street or to catch a bus.

There’s one thing more important than anything else. More important than healthcare. More important than education. Even more important than the roading networks that frustrate our everyday lives.

What’s so important? We all want to feel safe. The purpose of law and order is to ensure that. And at the moment we don’t.

As I mentioned in my last column, we had a few days in Perth, Western Australia a couple of weeks ago. When the business end of the trip was complete, my wife and I went out for dinner on the Friday night. After a nice meal in one of the pleasant restaurants in Perth’s CBD, we went for a walk around the city before returning to our hotel.

The evening was balmy and the temperature, although cold by their standards, was pleasant enough for a couple of Aucklanders who’ve become sick of the rain. We walked for an hour or so. The streets were well-lit and clean. There were plenty of people around.

There were groups of people in their late teens and early twenties. They’d had a few drinks, some of them, but their mates were looking after those who’d gone a bit hard. They wore colourful clothing, seemed happy and were well-behaved.

There was another group of people out there too. Police. Lots of them. Two or three on every corner. Standing around, chatting to the people. Some of them had high-tech mountain bikes for transport. That caught our eye and we chatted for 20 minutes about the bikes and how and why they used them.

I mentioned to them that everything seemed “pretty quiet tonight”.

“It always is”, the taller cop said. “Until about 2am. Then the dickheads come out of the bars and need a bit of help getting on their way.” He gave the impression that the “help” was probably not a pleasant experience for the aforementioned “dickheads”.

But here’s the point: it was Friday night in the CBD. And we felt safe.

A week later, just eight days ago, it was another Friday night. We went into the city to see the Great Comedy Debate at Sky City. It was part of Auckland’s Comedy Festival. We made a night of it. We even caught the bus into town, which worked well. That meant we could have a few drinks before catching an Uber home.

After the debate, perhaps influenced by our experience a week earlier, we decided to walk down to the waterfront for a late meal. It was 9pm.

The construction work means the city doesn’t feel clean. It’s dusty. Footpaths are interrupted by orange cones and other barriers. The lighting is poor. Perhaps they’ll brighten things up when the construction is complete.

Just like the week before, there were groups of young people around. My guess is that they were mainly teenagers. Most of them were dressed in black, with hoodies being the preferred garment. Masks up to the eyes were another fashion feature, along with beanies on the heads that the hoodies didn’t cover.

They talked out loud. “Gangsta”-style. As they walked along in their baggy pants, one of them kicked over a rubbish bin. Another jumped and slapped an overhead sign. Chanting. Laughing. Yelling. They took up the whole footpath in places. Those passing had to move onto the road to do so.

We didn’t see a single police officer. And we didn’t feel safe.

The relatively new Minister of Police has been celebrating achieving the Government goal of recruiting an additional 1800 frontline personnel. I’m not sure if that’s a net number or not. In other words, I don’t know whether the calculation of 1800 additional cops takes into account those who have left over the same period.

Despite the daily evidence in front of us, the minister suggested this week that crime was on its way down. She said the reason for more crime being reported was the fact that police had a new app that made crime easier to report. She went on to say that those 1800 police meant New Zealanders were feeling safer.

Perhaps she missed the stats showing that violent crime is up by 40 per cent and there are 25 per cent fewer people in prison. That doesn’t make us feel safer.

In any case, the PM, himself a failed former Police Minister, fronted with Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB during the week and acknowledged the problem.

They say the first step to overcoming a problem is to acknowledge that you have one. So let’s call that a start.

But back to the 1800 new cops. Or for that matter the 9700 frontline police we now have. Where are they? They’re certainly not in the CBD on a Friday night.

I like the Perth example. Do you think the Michael Hill jewellery store in Takapuna would have closed if there were three cops with a couple of bicycles on that corner from 4pm until 4am each day? Do you think people would be walking into supermarkets and stealing trolleys full of groceries in broad daylight if there were a couple of cops cruising the streets outside?

How many of us speed up in our cars when we see a traffic cop on the road? I suspect very few. Surely, visibility is a key to policing. The more police out on the streets, the more visible, the more accessible, the better.

So we have 1800 new cops. That’s great. Where are they?

In the past 12 years we’ve had 10 police ministers. Five from National and five from Labour. That includes the current Prime Minister. Two people have had the job twice – Judith Collins and Stuart Nash. You’d argue that Collins is the only one who seems to have hated crime enough to take the job seriously. She did the job for four years in total. That means the others averaged less than a year in the job. There’s a message in there somewhere. Longevity and experience gets better results. The current minister is the fourth in the past three years.

One of the wonderful ironies about this debate is that while the Police Minister has been telling us how much safer we all feel, last week’s Budget included $14 million of additional expenditure across four years to enhance security at the homes and offices of MPs. That’s great for the MPs. What about the rest of us?

Did anyone else think of South Africa when they heard that? It was my immediate reaction. Perhaps the barbed wire is next.

Speaking of which, I get my hair cut by a young South African woman. She’s a wife and a mother and a delightful personality. She told me this recently: “My husband and I took five years to make the decision to come here. We thought it would be better. But the way this country is going, we are starting to think we made a mistake.”

Sound familiar?

Here’s the thing about the crime problem: it’s visible and it’s scary. The gang fights on the streets are videoed and appear in our daily news. We see people on the ground being kicked repeatedly. We wonder, why them? Could it be me? We see the video leaked out of the prison of the gang haka. How did they get a camera into the prison? Why are we glamourising their antics behind bars?

We’re not feeling safer, minister, because crime is more visible than ever before. The thugs are out on the streets beside us. They’re smashing into stores in broad daylight, in front of our eyes and our camera phones. We hear stories that the perpetrators aren’t charged. The courts are too clogged up to deal with them in a timely fashion. Sometimes a family conference is ordered instead.

That doesn’t appear to be working.

We can make excuses for people. We hear of poor upbringings, troubled childhoods and opportunities for rehabilitation. And yet many use their lifeline to re-offend.

So that doesn’t appear to be working either.

We know we have a problem when members of our police force resort to anonymously calling talkback radio to defend their actions or lack thereof. When they say we’re soft on crime, you’d better believe it. When they say they’re not supported, you need to believe it. Just remember, they’re the ones who go to work every day with the risk of being shot at.

We have a massive problem and we need massive action to solve it. We need the Government, the Police Minister, the Police Commissioner, and for that matter every responsible New Zealander, to say the current system isn’t acceptable. We urgently need to get the situation back under control. We need those 1800 new police and their colleagues out on the street. And we need more, possibly another 1800. Visible. Accessible. Capable.

Once they’re out there, let’s give them authority to do the job that needs to be done. Some of the bad guys are scary. I get that and we need to ensure that the resources are available to ensure the cops can safely deal with escalating situations. But plenty of them are kids who need, as my grandfather would have said, a swift kick. Let’s put the excuse box to one side and support our police effort with on-the-scene permissions, rapid processing and a legal system that moves quickly to adapt to the crisis.

When nations start collapsing, escalating crime is often both an ingredient and an output. We need to stop the crime wave before the problem is irreversible.

At the risk of paraphrasing those Aussies. Hey coppers. Where the bloody hell are you?

This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 27th May 2023.