Story: Police

Page 3. Policing a stable society, 1880s to 1960s

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New Zealand Police Force

By the mid-1880s the colonial frontier was considered to have been fully ‘tamed’. New Zealand was now such a peaceful colony that its military and police functions, already operating separately within the constabulary, could be formally separated. The policing emphasis was rapidly moving from imposing order to maintaining it. In 1886 the civil constables were reorganised into the first fully unified national force, the New Zealand Police Force (NZPF). Until the First World War it maintained links with the new military organisation formed out of the Field Force, but in normal circumstances it was essentially an unarmed force. The NZPF was almost entirely staffed by Pākehā, increasingly focused on crime control, and developed a detective capacity. It became steadily more modern and professional in its methods, especially after highly critical reports from a series of police commissions between 1898 and 1909.

Police union

In 1913 a number of police constables and non-commissioned officers formed a police union to tackle longstanding grievances about pay and conditions. Police Commissioner John Cullen and his officers suppressed the attempt by targeting the union leaders. One of them, Constable Charles Smyth, was driven out of the force. Police were permitted to join the Public Service Association, but most found it ineffective. The Police Association was finally formed in 1936, after the first Labour government was elected.

‘Friendly bobbies on the beat’

By the First World War New Zealand had become a comparatively tranquil society, partly as a result of the way the police had applied the state’s policies. Consequently the NZPF was one of the least coercive police forces in the world. Policing between the two world wars, with relatively little need to use extreme coercion, has been called a policeman’s paradise. This age of the urban ‘bobby on the beat’, and the sole-charge rural policeman whose duties seldom involved serious crime, lasted until the 1960s. New developments included the introduction of women police from 1941 and policies to recruit Māori from the 1950s. Other ethnicities were not systematically recruited until considerably later.

Māori police?

Pākehā social attitudes and government policy meant that Māori police had largely been phased out by the early 20th century. In 1950 a Taihape senior sergeant said: ‘The average European would strongly resent being corrected or reprimanded by a Maori, particularly in some districts where the colour line is still observed. On the other hand, the average Maori appointee would be inclined to suffer from an inferiority complex when dealing with Europeans.’1 After much debate, recruitment of Māori police officers began soon after.

Applying exceptional force

The bottom line of policing is the ability to compel obedience. This compulsion was used whenever needed –- such as when arresting burglars or controlling alcohol-fuelled incidents in city streets. Additional force was also wielded vigorously whenever it was seen to be needed, such as during:

  • waves of strikes in 1912–13
  • security concerns during world wars
  • mass civil disorders such as riots during the economic depression of the 1930s
  • repression of industrial protest during the 1951 waterfront dispute
  • demonstrations during the 1981 Springbok rugby tour.

As social turbulence began to increase from the 1960s, the police responded by tougher policing methods, although these were later softened by ‘community policing’ developments.

A benign image

Generally, throughout the 20th century New Zealand came arguably as close as any country’s to policing with the broad consent of the population. The 1956 transfer of security intelligence duties to a specialist agency outside the police reinforced a benign image of policing, also reflected in 1958 when the New Zealand Police Force became simply the New Zealand Police.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in Graeme Dunstall, A policeman’s paradise? Policing a stable society, 1918–1945. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1999, p. 121. Back
How to cite this page:

Richard S. Hill, 'Police - Policing a stable society, 1880s to 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/police/page-3 (accessed 19 June 2018)

Story by Richard S. Hill, published 20 Jun 2012