Keeping our communities safe
It’s 10pm on a Friday night, and I’d normally be tucked up in bed.
But not tonight.
Instead, I’m waiting outside at the back of the Masterton police station, ready to hit the road with the Masterton Community Patrol.
It’s one of those cold still nights where your breath transforms into clouds of vapour before your eyes, and you can hear shouts from people across town enjoying the end of their week with a beer – or seven.
The police compound gate slides open and the community patrol car glides out.
In the driver’s seat is patrol co-ordinator Cheryl Watson – when she’s not volunteering, she’s working as a paramedic for Wellington Free Ambulance.
If nominations were open for Wairarapa’s superwoman, I’m sure she would be a front-running contender.
In the front passenger seat is Sarah Mail – she wants to be a police officer like her dad, and is going through the recruitment process. Her day job is working at a bakery.
Kicking off the four-hour shift, we called in to a petrol station to grab a coffee.
There’s a girl at the counter – she’s on the night shift alone and grins as she sees Cheryl and Sarah walk in.
Their presence is a comfort to the lone petrol station worker – “we check up on a few of them to let them know they’re not alone”.
As the coffees are being made, Cheryl points out a car that is waiting at the pump, engine running, windows open – “there’s been a few drive-offs,” she said to me, “so we like to keep an eye out, especially when there’s only one person working”.
Before long we’re back on the road visiting points of interest like the train station, parks and reserves, and industrial areas – Sarah is taking down notes with vehicle number plates which may come in handy for police if an incident unfolds overnight in the area.
The Masterton Community Patrol is volunteer run but has a memorandum of understanding with the police.
Their aim is to empower communities to prevent crime and create safer environments through the utilisation of trained and equipped volunteer patrols.
They maintain a strong and mutually supportive working partnership with police and work to prevent criminal activity.
They are the extra “eyes and ears” of the police, Cheryl said.
Preparing for the worst
We drive into Queen Elizabeth Park, and see a group of people huddled around cars near the boatshed.
As we pull closer, a man signals for us to turn around and mind our own business – Sarah gives the police a call to check up on them.
At another park, a lone car is fogged up with what seems to be a couple spending time together in the back seat – “well at least we know they’re okay”, Cheryl said.
Since Cheryl started with the patrol in 2007, she has seen a lot of changes.
The patrol has gone from being a very small group to quite a professional one with a sign-written car, uniforms, and a dash cam for safety – “things can happen very quickly . . . it is an extra pair of eyes and records what is happening in front of us,” Cheryl said.
The 12 volunteers involved in Masterton Community Patrols are all trained in basic first aid – just in case.
Cheryl recalls the darkest day on the job for her – it was the night of the fatal Queen St crash in February 2016 in which two teenage boys died.
“We were practically the first on scene bar one police officer.
“We were working on scene with the police until the ambulance arrived . . . and subsequently went on to help the ambulance services right through to 5am, both at the scene and at ED.
“Tragically, two young lives were lost.”
Another big night was about a decade ago when the community patrol assisted police with the foiling of a burglary at the Kuripuni Tavern.
“They had basically broken in through the back gates and were helping themselves to plenty of beer.”
But lately there had been fewer “catches”, Cheryl said.
Nowadays, they dealt mostly with prevention and proactive patrolling.
This included keeping an eye out for “vulnerable people” who were finding their way home intoxicated.
Keeping an eye out
“We’ve observed at times people who are so intoxicated that they are literally taking one step forward and five back,” Cheryl said.
“We have seen them falling into people’s hedges, and we see them going up and down driveways because they can’t work out which one is their home.
“In a winter night, if someone collapses and is out overnight, there’s a high chance they are going to get hypothermia and die.
“We don’t want that happening to anybody, and also we don’t want someone who is vulnerable being attacked.”
She said often-times the patrol would keep an eye on vulnerable looking people from a distance to make sure they get home safe.
As the night approaches 1am, there’s a crowd forming outside Jackson St Bar – one man is peeing on the side of the building, and two girls are talking with raised voices to each other.
Others are stumbling about using friends as crutches.
This was tame though for a Friday night.
As sad as Cheryl was about the declining nightlife in Masterton over the years, it had resulted in fewer alcohol-related incidents around town, she said.
Drink-driving was still an issue though, and the patrol often gives police a heads-up if they have seen someone stumble into their vehicle and begin driving.
This didn’t seem to be an issue tonight though, and before I knew it, 2am had come along and the shift was over.
As I hopped back into my own car, which was frozen over by this stage, I considered myself lucky to live in a town where a group of people volunteered their time to make sure the rest of us are safe.
There are four community patrols in Wairarapa: Masterton, Carterton, Featherston, and Martinborough.
They are affiliated with Community Patrols of New Zealand and there is a police liaison officer allocated to work with them.
Their job is to note anything that could be suspicious and to inform police immediately of incidents requiring urgent attention.
In turn, police notify the patrol of suspicious activities and trouble spots they would like the patrol to keep an eye on, as well as informing the patrol of events happening in the area.
If you would like to be involved with a community patrol in Wairarapa, visit cpnz.org.nz.