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by Richard S. Hill

The first police in New Zealand were mounted troopers transferred from New South Wales, and other armed police forces. By the end of the 19th century policing by consent was the goal. Modern New Zealand police have an international reputation for lack of corruption and relatively mild policing. However, there have been notable occasions where police use of force has been criticised, such as during the 1981 Springbok rugby tour.

The earliest police forces

Policing before 1840

In pre-colonial society, rūnanga and other institutions exercised control within tribes and subtribes. Chiefs enforced customary laws, assisted by selected warriors, tohunga and others.

When New Zealand came into the British sphere of influence (as an extension of the New South Wales frontier) in the 1830s, the imperial authorities aimed to advance trade and commerce by creating stable conditions. Violence within and between Māori and Pākehā communities was discouraged by naval patrolling and a handful of isolated officials with scant resources.


When Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson declared New Zealand a British colony in 1840, he was accompanied by a small detachment of New South Wales mounted police, nicknamed ‘catskins’. These troopers arrived before their horses, so at first they patrolled on foot along the ’main street’ (the beach) of Kororāreka (later renamed Russell). Hobson appreciated the ‘imposing effect which their appearance produces on the Natives’.1 The troopers were accommodated at mission stations until the missionaries objected to their cutting down thriving fruit trees for firewood. They returned to New South Wales in 1842 after New Zealand ceased to be a dependency of that colony.

Colonial police, 1840–1846

When Captain William Hobson arrived to establish the new colony of New Zealand in 1840, he was supported by heavily armed members of the New South Wales mounted police. The first officials in charge of order in the new European settlements and surrounding districts were police magistrates, who recruited teams of constables. This system was imported from New South Wales, which had been founded as a convict settlement and was rigidly controlled. Use of military-style police was intended as a temporary measure, until a society evolved in which most people would obey most laws most of the time.

In 1840 policing was under close scrutiny throughout the British Empire. The reform of London’s police in 1829 had introduced theories of policing by consent rather than by coercion. However, the new frontier of colonial New Zealand required British order to be imposed before it could be enforced, and police therefore operated more by force, especially towards Māori, than by consent. Supplemented by a small number of soldiers, they played a significant role in extending control beyond the first small coastal Pākehā settlements.

‘Lawless brutal and violent’

Until 1846 police magistrates commanded local police forces in European settlements and their environs. They complained that they were given insufficient manpower or equipment to keep the peace. In 1843 Charles Robinson, a well-regarded magistrate in the Banks Peninsula town of Akaroa, arrested a notorious whaling captain named Paddy Woods. Woods had seized an American whaler and assaulted a constable. However, the arrest warrant was out of date and Woods, described as ‘lawless brutal and violent in the extreme … the constant object of terror and disquietude to both Natives and White men’, was released.2 He then sued Robinson for £1,000 for false arrest.

Armed Police Force, 1846–1853

Under a new governor, George Grey, policing strategy responded to Māori uprisings in the mid-1840s by becoming more forceful, and supporting the military suppression of rebellion. The police magistracy forces were replaced in 1846 by a colony-wide Armed Police Force (APF). This was directly modelled on the paramilitary constabulary in Ireland, which at that time was a rebellious and severely policed country. The APF had formidable powers and resources to suppress disorder. Its members were disciplined young men who reported to their own officers rather than to magistrates. Their main task was to conduct armed surveillance patrols in both ‘tamed’ areas (towns and the surrounding districts) and ‘untamed’ (mainly Māori-controlled) areas. They were transferred frequently to new posts, on the policing principle that it was easier to order police to apply extreme force to strangers than to people with whom they were familiar. 

Māori and policing

Māori were recruited to the APF for their specialist knowledge of people and terrain, and played prominent roles in policing fellow Māori. High-born males were chosen as Māori constables where possible. They were expected to learn the skills of European civilisation through living at the police barracks, and take this experience back to their tribes. In 1846 resident magistrates replaced police magistrates, often assisted in rural areas by chiefs, who might assign members of their tribes to help with policing.

    • Quoted in Richard S. Hill, Policing the colonial frontier: the theory and practice of coercive social and racial control in New Zealand, 17671867. Vol. 1. Wellington: Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, p. 126. Back
    • Quoted in Policing the colonial frontier, vol. 1, p. 204. Back

Provinces, war and gold, 1850s to 1870s

After the 1840s wars Armed Police Force (APF) constables functioned as an occupying and peace-keeping force. Sections of the APF, especially in the South Island and other areas which did not experience Māori opposition, began to move towards civil rather than paramilitary policing. Police were stationed for longer periods at the same barracks and became less likely to display or use firearms.

This was in line with policing theory for settler colonies. Colonial forces were expected to move gradually away from reacting to offences and towards preventing them. Preventive policing using minimum force was expected to come about by regular patrolling, on routes known as ‘beats’ in urban areas, and by winning the confidence and consent of the population. Ideally, constables would eventually need to control only the small minority of criminal offenders.

At the end of his tether

One of the most intrepid policemen in the provincial forces of the 1850s was London-born Edward Seager. He once marched a suspect through a cold, stormy night across the Canterbury Plains to Lyttelton. His prisoner walked in front tied to a rope and Seager threatened to blow his head off if the rope slackened. He later fought a gun battle with two escapers from Lyttelton Gaol. Seager’s most famous capture came in 1855 when he disguised himself to track down James Mackenzie, an alleged sheep-stealer. Crime writer Ngaio Marsh was Seager’s granddaughter.

Provincial police

In 1853 New Zealand was divided into six (eventually 10) provinces, which were given responsibility for policing. Where Māori were still seen as a threat to peace, paramilitary methods of policing continued within the provincial armed police forces. Elsewhere, and increasingly, a civil police style continued to develop. In quiet areas a type of community-based policing emerged, at least among Pākehā. Māori were increasingly marginalised in all areas of life, including within provincial police forces.

Policing the New Zealand wars

The outbreak of large-scale warfare between Māori and the government in the North Island in 1860 caused several provincial forces to return to paramilitary policing. In troubled areas new forces which combined military and police functions were established. These included companies of military settlers, troops who would later have a policing role after settling on land confiscated from defeated ‘rebels’.

In 1861 Grey was brought back to New Zealand for a second term as governor, and renewed the heavy involvement of Māori in policing. He established a system of officially recognised rūnanga with their own police forces. The runanga police chiefs worked in conjunction with resident magistrates and other officials.

When these rūnanga failed to prevent further war, they were abolished. However aspects of their policing function remained and were eventually formalised in the system of ‘native constables’. These survived well into the 20th century and, from 1900, supplemented another state policing mechanism within Māori communities – that attached to Māori councils.

The Fortrose liar

The goldfields police under Otago Police Commissioner St John Branigan faced a difficult task trying to pacify unruly prospectors. In November 1861 Sam Perkins, known as the ‘Fortrose liar’, convinced many diggers to follow him to a new location where he claimed gold had been discovered. They arrived to find nothing but Perkins’s store selling expensive supplies. A ‘popular court’ of diggers sentenced Perkins to a whipping and the punishment was being carried out when Branigan’s men arrived on horseback and arrested him. He was later imprisoned for false pretences.

Gold rushes

From 1861 huge gold rushes took place in New Zealand. Thousands of rootless young men poured into remote areas of the South Island, immediately overwhelming small civil-style provincial police forces. The authorities quickly responded by reintroducing forceful, Irish-style policing methods that had been adapted for use in the Australian goldfields. Senior Australian goldfields police were imported to head these new forces, most notably St John Branigan, commissioner of police in Otago. Irish-Australian policing methods spread throughout the South Island, because goldfields-based economies created social unrest in nearby areas. As the gold ran out and prospectors and miners moved on, civil-style policing re-emerged.

Armed Constabulary

In 1867, after war and land seizures in Waikato, Taranaki and elsewhere, the government believed the colony was finally at peace. Most imperial troops had been withdrawn, but a permanent colonial army was seen as both unnecessary and too expensive. Instead the Armed Constabulary (AC) was established to occupy and police the conquered regions. Based on Irish Constabulary principles, its practice was modified by lessons learnt from the experience of the APF and other paramilitary units.

In 1868, when war broke out again on both sides of the North Island, the AC formed the core of colonial defence against Māori forces led by the prophets and military leaders Tītokowaru and Te Kooti. It quickly expanded, assisted by Māori units including ‘flying columns’ (highly mobile units) recruited from ‘kūpapa’ tribes allied to the government. As the AC regained control in 1869, the colony was once again declared ‘pacified’. The constabulary was greatly reduced and demilitarised by its new commissioner, St John Branigan.

New Zealand Constabulary Force

In 1876 the provincial governments were abolished and the Armed Constabulary absorbed the provincial police to become the colony’s only police force. Once this merger was complete, in 1877, it was renamed the New Zealand Constabulary Force. The new force had two main divisions – the Policing Branch in the cities and settled areas, and the Reserve Division (later the Field Force), which continued to exercise military-style surveillance over Māori in some areas. The last significant operation of the Field Force was the crushing of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi’s passive resistance movement at Parihaka, Taranaki, in 1881.

Policing a stable society, 1880s to 1960s

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. A Police Officers’ Guild (from 2019 the Police Leaders’ Guild) was formed in 1955 to provide a voice for senior officers.

‘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
  • the world wars, which raised security concerns
  • 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 that was symbolised when the New Zealand Police Force became simply the New Zealand Police in 1958.

    • 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

Modern policing


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. In 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, and cooked meals 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 the first policewomen were 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. Civil police training had 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. It was followed by an Anti-Terrorist Squad, later called the Special Tactics Group. In 2006 police began trialling the Taser, a device that delivers a powerful electric charge. Civil liberties and mental-health groups condemned the weapon, but from 2008 Tasers were gradually issued to police. Constables also 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 general arming of all sworn police officers – a very contentious issue – 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 there had been police misconduct, including the planting of 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 over the policing of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour were dealt with. 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 a 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 amalgamation 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. The Policing Act 2008 provided a framework to advance the New Zealand Police vision of ‘Safer communities together’.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Richard S. Hill, 'Police', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Richard S. Hill, published 20 June 2012