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Tough times for thin blue line

PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Police aim to fill holes with recruitment drive

A ‘perfect storm’ over the past 12 months created the lowest staffing levels in Wairarapa’s police force since 2019.

The drop in numbers had the community, local politicians and the region’s Police Area Commander raising concerns that went to the Police Commissioner, but a recruitment drive and increased resources signal a positive change in coming months.

After reports of under-resourced police shifts in Wairarapa, the Times-Age submitted an Official Information Act request about staffing levels in the region.

The recently released information showed the number of active staff, [full-time equivalent] had continued to decline since concerns were raised in July by South Wairarapa District Mayor Alex Beijen and MP Kieran McAnulty, dropping from 78.25 in June 2021 to 70.25 in November 2021.

Commander Scott Miller. PHOTO/MARY ARGUE

Police Area Commander Scott Miller said there were always peaks and troughs in staff resourcing, but those figures did not illustrate the whole picture.

However, he said without doubt the past year had been rough.

“There are good times and not so good times.

“You can’t get away from the fact that covid has affected us, just like everyone else.”

He said in 2017-18, Wairarapa police had consistent staffing levels, but in 2019 the region had a glut of officers.

“We had 12-15 more than we were allocated.

“We did very well out of the governments promised 1800 officers over a five-year period.”

Miller said this allowed extra staff to be stationed in rural and community positions, particularly in South Wairarapa.

Police college recruitment, however, was halted during the pandemic leading to a dearth of officers in certain areas of New Zealand, Miller said, and Wairarapa was no exception.

“What’s happened in late 2020 and 2021, with a hold on recruits going through the college, we hit a trough.”

He said in addition to the recruit shortage, “two things happened last year”, which exacerbated police resources in the region.

He said that nine staff signalled they were leaving and 10 officers were on long-term leave.

“[The leave] was for various reasons, but that is quite an impact. A perfect storm.”

He said mental health-related leave had risen in the past couple of years, as police had grappled with the pandemic.

“We have been affected like everyone else, perhaps even more so.”

Miller said resources had been a constant balancing act, as there was always a lag for replacement. He said he knew officers were struggling with it.

“We had plenty of meetings last year about it.”

He said Wairarapa police had struggled to staff the South Wairarapa police station, and the officers placed there during 2019’s peak had been pulled.

“In the hard times, they get taken off. It’s a balance between staff safety and community safety.”

He said it was “too unsafe these days” for officers to work alone but conceded that any time officers were not where the community wanted them, it was concerning.

“The ones that are going to get hurt are our frontline uniformed police officers.”

He said it had been his priority over the past 12-18 months to keep levels of frontline staff as safe as possible.

Miller said Wairarapa was one of the fastest-growing regions in the wider Wellington District and said help was on the horizon.

He said the force would welcome eight recruits next week, in addition to five seasoned officers.

“So we’re losing nine but gaining 13, so that puts us a little bit positive.”

Miller said he aimed to have permanent positions allocated in South Wairarapa and recruit directly from the police college in Wellington.

He said Wairarapa police had placed advertisements this week for three new detectives who would form a team specifically targeting serious crime.

They were also looking to fill important positions that were dedicated to family harm and custody.

He said the mayors and MP McAnulty had been kept up to date with the recruitment drive and had been “very helpful in keeping our staff numbers up.”

McAunlty said the allocation of additional resources was encouraging and that the region was well served.

He said Miller was a strong advocate for Wairarapa.

“We meet pretty regularly, and he keeps me updated as issues arise.”

He said police in the region were held in high regard, and the extra presence would be reassuring to the community.

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