Story: Police

Page 4. Modern policing

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New Zealand police had always used new technologies as they became available, for both uniformed patrol and (later) detective duties. These included moving from horse to motor-vehicle transport, and from whistle to radio for communications. Dogs were trained to assist with policing from 1956. By 2009 police dogs were working with 120 patrol teams, and eight detector teams used them for drug and explosive detection. Forensic science was applied to detection techniques from the 19th century and the establishment of fingerprint identification from 1903 greatly improved detection rates. Today the New Zealand Police use highly sophisticated equipment and techniques such as DNA analysis.

Women and the police

In the 19th century the wives of constables at sole-charge country stations assisted their husbands by minding the station in their absence, or cooking for prisoners in the lockup. From the 1890s full-time police matrons were appointed at city stations to deal with female prisoners. Catherine Ledger, who had three brothers in the police force, became assistant matron at Wellington central station in 1917 and remained there for 21 years. When policewomen were finally appointed in 1941, they worked mostly with women and children. Eventually women police reached high rank and held positions formerly seen as male preserves, such as heading armed offenders operations. In 1984 Ann Hercus became the first female minister of police.

Specialisation and training

In the later 20th century the pace of technological change led to greater specialisation among both detectives and uniformed police. This greatly improved search and rescue, criminal intelligence, and anti-terrorist and other operations. As police management systems and technology became more sophisticated, the numbers of support staff who were not sworn in as constables rose rapidly. The Royal New Zealand Police College opened in Porirua in 1981, the latest in a series of training centres dating back to Armed Constabulary days, with civil police training having begun at Wellington’s Mt Cook barracks in 1898.

Police and firearms

Police in New Zealand have generally been unarmed – not carrying a firearm in normal circumstances – since the late 19th century. In 1964 the Armed Offenders Squad (AOS) was created to provide a specialist armed response unit, followed by an Anti-Terrorist Squad, later called the Special Tactics Group. In 2006 police began trialling the Taser, a device that delivered a powerful electric charge. Civil liberties and mental-health groups condemned the weapon, but from 2008 Tasers were gradually issued to police. In addition constables carried batons (as they had since 1840) and pepper spray, and some carried firearms in a secure container within their police vehicle. Between 1890 and 2011, 29 police personnel were killed by criminal acts while performing their official duties. From 1941 to August 2011, 25 people were fatally shot by police; in all cases police actions were found to have been lawful.

Police Association

The New Zealand Police Association is a voluntary service organisation that represented nearly 8,600 sworn police (those sworn in as constables) and almost 2,300 non-sworn employees in 2011. The Police Association supports the highly contentious issue of the general arming of all sworn police officers, and has a high public profile.

Controversy and the police

The New Zealand Police has generally enjoyed a very high public reputation, although this has periodically been threatened. Arthur Allan Thomas, a Waikato farmer, was twice convicted of murdering his neighbours in the 1970s. In 1979 he was exonerated after a royal commission found police misconduct, including planting evidence. From 2004 a number of serving and former police officers faced high-profile sexual abuse allegations. So-called ‘anti-terrorist’ raids on activists and Māori communities in the Urewera in 2007 provoked further complaints.

Until 1989 complaints against police were investigated internally. This led to increased controversy, especially at the way complaints were dealt with over the policing of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. The Police Complaints Authority was formed in 1989, but because it relied on police investigations, it was seen as lacking independence. Independent investigators were used from 2003 and a new body, the Independent Police Conduct Authority, was formed in 2007.

Police serving overseas

Since 1964, when an initial volunteer force of 20 police officers was sent for peacekeeping duties in Cyprus, New Zealand police have served overseas in a range of duties. In 1979 a team was sent to Antarctica to recover the bodies from an air crash at Mt Erebus. Police took part in post-conflict assistance in Namibia in 1989–90 and Timor-Leste (East Timor) in 1999–2001 and again from 2006. They engaged in reconstruction after tsunami damage in Thailand in 2005–6. In 2011 about 80 New Zealand police were deployed overseas, in five countries.

Police in the 2000s

In 2011 the New Zealand Police had almost 12,000 personnel, of whom 3,000 were non-sworn (non-constabulary) staff. This figure included former members of the Ministry of Transport’s Traffic Safety Service (once known as ‘traffic cops’), which integrated into the New Zealand Police in 1992. This aroused fears that traffic policing duties would damage relations between police and public. However, the New Zealand Police continued to maintain an international reputation for lack of corruption, relatively mild policing and freedom from government interference in operational matters. In 2008 a new Policing Act provided a framework to advance the New Zealand Police vision of ‘Safer communities together’.

How to cite this page:

Richard S. Hill, 'Police - Modern policing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 March 2018)

Story by Richard S. Hill, published 20 Jun 2012