Crime statistics are improving in Wairarapa.

HAYLEY GASTMEIER

hayley.gastmeier@age.co.nz

Crime has dropped about 20 per cent in Wairarapa in the past year, with community leaders saying the region has seen dramatic changes since the bad old days of a couple of decades ago.

Wairarapa may feature New Zealand’s “most beautiful” city and town but it hasn’t always been a desirable place to raise a family.

Over the past few decades the region has known for its gang population and being centre stage in some of the country’s most shocking murders.

But these days Wairarapa punches above its weight on multiple fronts, and the crime rate is steadily dropping.

Police say this could be down to a change in how they deal with first and second-time offenders, nipping a life of criminal activity in the bud, while a youth leader says it’s about making young people feel valued and creating an engaged community.

Wairarapa Area Commander Inspector Scott Miller said the region was not what it used to be.

“Wairarapa over the past three decades has changed dramatically on the criminal landscape.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, Wairarapa had some horrendous murders – we haven’t had a murder in six years.

“Back then you’d see a lot of patched gang members, you’d have high-profile gang fights and serious overt crimes.”

These days gangs were inclined to “stay under the radar”.

Miller said overall crime across Wairarapa had decreased between 17 and 22 per cent over the past 12 months, depending on the crime.

Burglaries across the region had “dropped dramatically” to about 10 to 12 a week on average– it was once up to four times that figure.

A snapshot of crime reports over Wairarapa for one week in August shows 31 calls to police came from incidents in Carterton and South Wairarapa.

Masterton generated 79 calls to police, which Miller said was probably relative when population was considered.

A new initiative, Te Pae Oranga, that focused on a preventative approach to offenders, was contributing to the down-turn in lawbreaking.

Miller said instead of sending first and second time low-level offenders to court, they were being put before a panel of iwi and police representatives, who worked with community partners to address the cause of the offender’s illicit behaviour.

Miller said there were more jobs and activities for the region’s youth, keeping them away from a life in crime.

Youth development coordinator Alan Maxwell, of the Wairarapa Whanau Trust, has made a huge difference in Featherston, where youth offending was a serious problem just a few years ago.

“When I first moved here [from Masterton in 2015], most of the youth didn’t feel very welcome or as though they were part of the community or even wanted.”

He said with little on offer for young people in the town “the odds were stacked against them”.

They were hanging out at the skate park, interacting with gangs, and anti-social crimes like vandalism were at an all-time high.

Maxwell had been appointed as a full-time youth worker to South Wairarapa by the Anglican church, which recognised the issue, and the lack of presence of social agencies in the area.

He began a youth programme which engaged the teens with the community through activities like gardening working bees and fundraising events for community projects.

He said the youth group “grew rapidly”.

It had more than100 members within the first eight months of launching.

“The minute they felt like they were part of the wider community, all of the trouble stopped.

“They had a sense of belonging.”

South Wairarapa Sergeant Richie Day agreed the youth group had made a world of difference.

“Youth crime used to be a huge problem, now it’s pretty much non-existent.

“That’s largely down to Alan Maxwell taking charge and developing a youth programme and getting youths into the community.”

Day said high concentrations of criminal activity were usually due to a few individuals.

When they were caught, things generally settled back down.