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Security and personal safety

by Carl Walrond

People walking city streets at night may look fearfully down dark alleys or ill-lit streets. In fact they are more at risk of harm in their own homes, at the hands of those they know.

Risks to personal safety

Women’s safety

In the late-19th century most cities and towns were poorly lit and the inner city had a dubious reputation. Women rarely went out unaccompanied after dark. In the 1870s and 1880s there was a moral panic about young men dubbed ‘larrikins’ loitering around town centres.

Wealthy young women were chaperoned in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, but this had as much to do with preserving a respectable reputation as personal safety.

From 1878 the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) began to provide accommodation for newly arrived immigrant women. Youth hostels also later housed young women coming from rural areas to work in cities.

More women ventured into town and city centres at night in the 20th century as street lighting improved, late-night shopping was introduced and car ownership became widespread.

A den of vice?

The inner city is often perceived as the most crime-ridden part of the city. In the minds of many this is where unknown unsavoury characters hang out. Yet people are most likely to be assaulted, raped or murdered by a family member or someone they know in the suburbs.

Quantifying the threat

For women the greatest physical threat comes from their partner or ex-partners. While women are more likely to be raped in their own homes and by someone they know, fear of rape and assault by strangers causes some to restrict their movements. Young men on their own are also a target for groups of thugs. While the risk of a random attack is low, some women do not venture out of their homes at night unaccompanied unless driving a car. Since the 1970s some feminists have responded by holding ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches.

Sex workers are at risk of violence, especially street walkers who get into clients’ cars and drive to isolated locations.

Safety of children

Childhood play was rarely supervised by adults up until the 1970s and often went beyond the boundary of the suburban back yard. The fear of abduction of children increased from the 1980s. Yet the largest threat comes from relatives and friends of the child rather than from strangers. Ninety percent of all child deaths are the outcome of actions by someone they know.

Children are seen to be at risk on their journey to and from school, and most young children are either driven to school or walked there by an adult. Ironically, the greater threat to a child is the risk of being hit by traffic, which the practice of driving children exacerbates.

In 1988 the Education Department introduced a programme called ‘Keeping Ourselves Safe’ into primary schools. It includes different interventions for children of different ages and aims to give children skills to cope with situations that might involve abuse, both from strangers and people known to them.

Hitchhikers’ guide to New Zealand

New Zealand used to have a reputation as a hitchhiking paradise and it is still common to see hitchhikers on state highways, although they are rarely single women. Murders of hitchhikers have led to advice not to take the risk, or if people choose to do it to hitchhike in pairs.

Abductions and kidnappings

Abductions and kidnappings are uncommon and it is even rarer for the victim to be unknown to the perpetrator. Before the mid-1990s there were fewer than 200 annual abductions. Since 1997, they have become more frequent, with well over 200, and occasionally 300, reported each year. Child abductions are most commonly the acts of parents involved in custody battles.


Groups of drunks behaving disruptively can be very intimidating. This became a greater problem after liquor licensing laws were relaxed during the 1990s which allowed more liquor outlets, open much later than before. Alcohol bans in public places in many cities have been implemented from the early 21st century to help increase levels of perceived safety.

Safer cities

Origins of safer cities

Until the 1980s most urban planners were men. As feminist perspectives on how some women felt unsafe in certain parts of cities began to permeate local councils the design of cities began to change.

In the 1980s Toronto, Canada, was at the forefront of an approach known as safer cities or safer communities. This addressed issues of poor lighting, isolation, lack of sight lines (not being visible to others), no access to help, hiding spots for attackers (trees or bushes) and inadequate security in urban settings.

Safer communities in New Zealand

The government launched four pilot crime-prevention schemes in Manukau, Wairoa, Christchurch and Ashburton in the early 1990s. Central and local government both provided funding and established Safer Community councils chaired by local mayors. Safety audits of residential neighbourhoods were carried out, and design guidelines were developed to create more secure physical environments. Prior to this some communities were already taking action. In Christchurch a police kiosk in Cathedral Square was opened in 1986, mainly funded by public donations.

By 2016, 24 New Zealand communities or cities had been designated ‘Safe Communities’, a status achieved by meeting many different safety criteria and initiatives. Safer cities have evolved way beyond the initial focus of personal safety and security in public spaces and neighbourhoods, to include homes, workplaces, vehicle safety and accident rates. Some councils, such as Christchurch City Council, collect many different indicators including overall crime rates, injury rates, child abuse rates and perceptions of safety after dark, to monitor their progress towards being a safer city.

Crime prevention through environmental design

Instead of the traditional approach of ‘target hardening’ (bars on windows, locks on doors) a new crime prevention approach emerged in the 1970s. Offenders who feel they may be seen are less likely to commit offences. Perception of safety can be increased through good urban design, especially better lighting at night, and by maintaining sight lines. This extends beyond design of public spaces into streets and suburbs. For example, low fences which enable sight lines to the street and to neighbours’ properties are favoured over high fences.

When people are afraid of crime they are more likely to drive rather than walk or take public transport, which can discourage evening street life. For these reasons, and others, town planners have sought to reinvigorate inner cities by encouraging people to live there and by ensuring that their attractions are unique. Planners favour multifunctional developments that include a mixture of different land uses so that a particular area is not busy at one time and virtually deserted at others (during the 1970s New Zealand’s inner city areas were like this).

Many of New Zealand’s education campuses were built or expanded in the 1960s and 1970s. Buildings were spread out with walking paths through green spaces. These lacked adequate lighting at night and were difficult to monitor or limit access to, due to many exit and entry points. This has led to practices such as more regular patrols by security guards, improved lighting and ensuring that night classes are clustered in the same area of campus. Tree trunks are regularly pruned to avoid creating hiding places for lurkers.

Safety strategies

After dark

Darkness increases fear of crime. In 2014, 38% of those responding to a quality of life survey felt unsafe walking around their neighbourhoods at night, while 52% felt unsafe walking around city centres at night.

Improvements in perceived safety

In 1989, 7% of people felt it was safe to be in the Auckland city centre after dark. This jumped to 25% in 1993 and 44% in 1999. The police considered that the main factor affecting this increase in perceived safety was the reduction in the number of street kids. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the police, council and other community groups had put in place programmes to get street kids off the streets. More apartments were also built from the 1990s and as the inner city got more pedestrian traffic, perceptions of safety increased.

Fear in the home

A 1993 study in Christchurch found that two-thirds of young women and around half of middle-aged women and the elderly did not feel safe in their homes at some time due to fear of attacks by strangers. Men, and younger men in particular, had lower levels of fear. A recent trend in a minority of new subdivisions is gated communities, where there are perimeter fences and access by the public is limited – some have their own security patrols.

Self defence no defence

Carrying weapons such as guns or knives for self defence or personal security is illegal. Stun guns and irritant sprays such as mace, which are used for self defence in some countries, have been banned in New Zealand since 1984.

Neighbourhood Support Groups

‘Neighbourhood Watch’ groups were established in many parts of the country in the late 1970s and in the early 1980s Neighbourhood Support Groups emerged. Neighbours introduced themselves, swapped phone numbers and agreed to monitor each other’s properties. Neighbourhood Watch was aimed at preventing burglaries, while Neighbourhood Support Groups sought to bring together local communities to combat all types of crime. In the 2010s these groups continued to build community networks and work with the NZ Police and community organisations.

Public transport

A survey in 2011 of attitudes towards safety in the Auckland region found that 41% of those who participated would feel either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ unsafe waiting for a bus alone after dark. 51% of women and 52% of those under 30 indicated that they would feel unsafe in this situation. Men and older adults were less likely to feel unsafe in this situation. Waiting for a train or ferry alone after dark was perceived to be safer than waiting for a bus.

Graffiti removal and vandalism repair

Even if an area has little criminal activity, vacant lots, run-down housing, graffiti, signs of vandalism and litter can intimidate people and create a fear of crime. Some city councils have responded by trying to remove graffiti within 24 hours and attempting quick repairs to vandalism. Maintenance of bus stops and train stations and keeping them clean are also important for perceptions of safety.

‘Never say die till you’re dead’

The Peace Scouts came into existence when Muriel Cossgrove begged her father, Colonel David Cossgrove, for a girl’s version of Boy Scouts, which he had introduced to New Zealand. He complied and published Peace Scouting for girls in 1910. The book demonstrated moves such as ‘wrist lock No.2’ which makes an attacker ‘howl with pain' and if carried out quickly, could break his wrist. One of the Peace Scouts mottos was ‘Never say die till you’re dead’.1

Personal protection

In 1913 Flossie Le Mar published a book on jiu-jitsu and toured New Zealand. Such early self-defence advice for women was before its time and did not become popular until the 1970s when Sue Lytollis began teaching self defence through the Auckland Young Women’s Christian Association. By 1992 more than 100,000 girls and women had done a course by Lytollis or one of the 30 teachers she trained. Carrying horns or whistles to sound in case of attack has never been very common among New Zealand women. Cellphones are widespread and parents often give them to children and teenagers so that they can be contactable.

In the 2010s the YWCA continued to offer self-defence and empowerment courses, but many other self-defence courses were available. S.A.F.E Self Defence offered courses and workshops directed at ensuring that participants could defend themselves effectively if they were attacked at home or in the street. It also focused on how to avoid situations that might put you at risk. Protect Training Systems also offered self-protection and self-defence programmes for corporate businesses, government departments, schools and colleges. Many of these courses were particularly developed for girls and women.

Self defence law

Anyone who is attacked is legally justified in using force to protect themselves (including deadly force if the circumstances warrant). The level of force used must be in proportion to the threat faced and not excessive. For example, if someone attacks with a knife or gun people may use lethal force if necessary. The law also permits the use of force to stop someone breaking and entering a person’s house.

    • Quoted in Sandra Coney, Standing in the sunshine. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 118. Back

Property security

Night watchmen and security firms

From the late 1800s security guards, known as ‘night watchmen’, were paid a pittance (gathered by subscriptions from townspeople or from building owners) to watch over large factories and other buildings and shops. In settlements of closely-spaced wooden buildings the main risks were fire, and, to a lesser degree, burglary.

Chubb Security was established in New Zealand in 1952 and Armourguard was set up in Auckland in 1959. The rise of security firms was initially to meet a growing demand for commercial property security and for payroll security in the days when workers were paid in cash.

Until the 1960s, some bank managers and tellers had pistols to hand. In 1958 Securitas introduced new armoured-car cash-carriers and security guards in uniform complete with loaded .38 revolvers in holsters. In the mid-1960s the practice of arming security guards, and for bank staff to have arms, was stopped, and in the 21st century it was illegal for security guards and private investigators to carry weapons.

Police prioritise violent crime

In the early 1960s the police still monitored some intruder alarm systems and also ensured the safe passage of bullion. Over time the police have prioritised crimes of violence over crimes of property. In the 1980s the size of the police force was cut and in 1987 the police adopted a policy of not attending intruder alarm calls unless it was suspected that an intruder was still on the premises. Many private property owners sought their own security arrangements and the security industry grew. Firms have diversified into many other areas such as property patrols, surveillance and events security. In the 2000s Chubb Security also acted as a contractor transferring prisoners for the Corrections Department in Auckland and carried out electronic monitoring of offenders on home detention.

Private Investigators and Security Guards Act 1974

The Private Investigators and Security Guards Act 1974 regulated the work of security workers. The Act was directed at providing protection of individuals’ rights to privacy and ensuring that all security guards were “fit and proper persons” to do this work. The legislation made it quite clear that security workers had no special powers greater than any citizen and nor could they suggest or imply that they had any such powers. Until the 1980s private investigators were sometimes involved in seeking evidence of adultery for suspicious spouses, but in 1981 adultery ceased to be grounds for dissolution of marriage. Private investigators in the 21st century largely specialise in tracking down property crime offenders for their clients. In 2016 there were over 4,000 licensed private investigators in the country.

Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act 2010

In 2010 the 1974 legislation relating to private investigators and security workers was overhauled and the old legislation eventually repealed. Under the new law, private invstigators, security technicians and consultants, repossession agents, property and personal guards and crowd controllers, such as bouncers in pubs, required a licence or certificate of approval. These licences could be obtained by individuals or companies. The Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act 2010 also provided a legal framework for the Private Security Personnel Licensing Authority which had the power to issue licenses and certificates of approval.

This form of work became increasingly the focus for regulation and certification. Courses were established for those seeking to work as security guards. The New Zealand Security Association connects businesses offering private security services in a range of different environments and provides information on the latest technologies in this field.

‘Big brother is watching you’

George Orwell’s fear of a surveillance state chronicled in his 1948 book 1984 has in some ways come to pass – although the state is not so much interested in being ‘thought police’ but rather uses surveillance to provide rapid response to crimes, to reduce crime and to provide evidence to convict criminals. Many people also feel safer in inner city areas due to closed circuit television monitoring.

Public life on private property

Since the 1960s there has been a trend toward public life taking place on private property. The protection of large complexes such as shopping malls, stadiums, supermarkets and airports has fallen to private security providers. While they do not have greater powers than private citizens, they do have the right to restrict access to private property (conferred to them by the property owner).

Burglar alarms and remote monitoring

There has been huge growth in household burglar alarms, which were commonly installed on commercial premises, but rare in New Zealand homes until the 1980s. Since the 1990s and the arrival of the internet and digital cameras, surveillance monitoring has exploded.

Closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras allow police to view many parts of city centres from a central location. Some city councils have installed CCTV cameras to monitor what is happening in “trouble spots” in the city, to provide security for city council owned buildings and other facilities and to manage passenger movements.

Small web cameras also allow monitoring through the internet which is particularly useful for owners of baches (holiday homes) and other remote properties. It can also be used to monitor their homes while owners are at work and for businesses to catch employees stealing stock or money from the till.

Acknowledgements to Terry Mortensen and Trevor Morley.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Security and personal safety', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2023)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Aug 2017