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Violent crime

by Greg Newbold

Murders, rapes and assaults dominate newspaper headlines and outrage the public – but violent crime is only 18% of recorded offences. However, cases of all types of violent crime have increased in number since the Second World War.

Trends in violent crime

Violence as a public issue

Violent crime attracts more public attention in New Zealand than any other form of crime. Murders, assaults and rapes dominate newspaper headlines, attract television news viewers, and ignite public debate about harsher sentences for offenders and better support for victims of crime. However, violent crime was only 18% of all recorded offences in 2014, and murder and manslaughter made up fewer than 0.2% of all recorded violent offences between 1994 and 2014. Between 2010 and 2014 there was an average of 65.6 homicides reported each year in New Zealand, 43.2 of which were reported as murders. Since 1985 the number of reported murders in New Zealand has been fairly stable, ranging from 41 to 73 each year. 

Types of violent crime

Violent crime includes homicide (such as murder and manslaughter), kidnapping and abduction, robbery, assaults (grievous, serious or minor), intimidation and threats, and group assemblies (offences such as unlawful assembly, harassment and rioting). Much of the violent crime reported to the police relates to minor offences. Serious assaults were 30% of all forms of reported violent offending in 2014. In 2017–2018 serious assault victimisations involving injury represented 22.5% of all assault victimisations. Due to a change in crime recording methods in 2017 this figure is not comparable with previous reports.

Other crimes of violence include domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse, but these crimes usually occur behind closed doors and are often unreported. As a result, official figures reveal only a fraction of the true incidence of these crimes.

Domestic violence

Reported domestic disputes peaked in the early 1990s and dropped in the mid-1990s, but rose again at the end of the decade. Since then reported domestic disputes have grown steadily. In 2006 the Police investigated 61,947 family violence cases. In 2015 they investigated 110,114 cases of family violence, up 8% from 101,981 in 2014.  Approximately 40% of all homicides are domestic-related.

Violence against children

In the 2010s the Department of Child, Youth and Family (CYF) received around 150,000 notifications of suspected child abuse and neglect each year. About 60,000 required further action. In 2015–2016, 2,953 children under 17 years of age were reported as having experienced physical abuse. Due to changed recording methods, this figure is not comparable with previous reports.

Between 2007 and 2014, 64 children under 15 were victims of homicide. Children under 5 were most at risk – over three-quarters of all child homicides in this period.

Weird crime city?

The discovery of the bodies of two women buried below the floor of a house in Christchurch in September 2009, following a number of other high-profile murders, led to the city being described as ‘New Zealand’s capital of bizarre crime’1. However, the police stated that Christchurch was not more prone to violent crime than other New Zealand cities.

Kidnapping and abduction

In New Zealand law, kidnapping is the unlawful detention or carrying away of any person against his or her will. Abduction is carrying away a woman or girl for the purposes of marrying her or having sex with her against her will. Kidnapping and abduction carry a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment.

These crimes are uncommon in New Zealand, and before 1997 there were fewer than 100 a year. However, these offences become more frequent and exceeded 200 from 1997. More than 300 abductions and kidnappings were recorded annually between 2006 and 2009 before falling in later years. Between 2012 and 2014 there was an average of 223 abductions and kidnappings each year. There was an average of 354 in 2015–2016 but this figure is not comparable with earlier data.

Increases in violent crime

Rates of violent crime (based on both reports and convictions) have increased since the Second World War. These increases have occurred across all forms of violent crime – murder, manslaughter, assaults, robbery, sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as violence against children.

Violent crimes reported to the police increased from 640 per 100,000 people in 1985 to a peak of 1,562 in 1996. After that they decreased slightly, but soon began to rise again. In 2008 nearly 1,400 violent crimes were reported per 100,000 citizens. Recent increases in reports of violent crime are related to a rise in recorded family violence. This is probably due to lower tolerance of domestic violence, and to police training initiatives that increased police responsiveness to complaints about family violence. Reported violent crime peaked in 2009 at 66,464 offences, then fell to 60,117 in 2013 before rising again in 2014 to almost 62,000. The police's new recording method, introduced in 2014, shows that per capita violent crime increased by 17% between 2014 and 2017.

International comparisons

In 2000 New Zealand’s rate of violent crime was slightly higher than Australia’s. There were almost identical rates for homicide, but New Zealand had higher rates for assault and Australia’s sexual-assault rates were higher. International comparison of crime rates, including rates of violent crime, is very difficult because countries record crime rates in different ways.

A comparison of OECD countries with respect to rates of physical assaults, threats and sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in 2004/5 identified New Zealand as having the highest rate of intimate partner violence. These statistics included reports of violence by both women and men.

Prison sentences

Society’s abhorrence of violent crime has been reflected in prison sentences. Sentences for violent offences are harsher than for other crimes. The Criminal Justice Act 1985 made imprisonment virtually mandatory for violent offences punishable by at least five years’ imprisonment. Amendments to this legislation in 1987 and 1993 increased levels of imprisonment and non-parole periods (the period during which an offender cannot apply to be released from prison) for violent offences. Release conditions were tightened and the maximum penalty for sexual violation extended from 14 years to 20 years. Average sentences for very serious offences increased sharply between 1986 and 1996.

The Parole Act 2002 and the Sentencing Act 2002 created a minimum non-parole period of 17 years for murder committed under certain aggravating circumstances (including killing more than one person, killing during a home invasion or using a high level of brutality), and extended the scope of preventive detention (indefinite imprisonment). Prison sentences increased; there were fewer early-parole releases and a greater number of recalls for parole violation. Lobby groups such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust continue to argue that more severe sentences were needed to act as a deterrent against violent crime and as a form of justice for the victims of crime. Others, however, argue for a more rehabilitative approach to offending.

The profile of criminal violence appears to have altered little in response to these sentencing and parole changes. However, in 2010 the government introduced a version of the US’s 'three strikes and you're out' policy, with stronger penalties for repeat violent and sexual offenders. Those with three strikes are now required to serve maximum sentences without the possibility of parole. However, up to August 2018 the courts had used a provision in the law to allow parole eligibility in every third strike case.

In November 2017 the new Labour/New Zealand First Coalition government announced that it would end the three strikes policy because it had not led to a reduction in serious crime nor acted as an effective deterrent. Opposition from Labour's coalition partner New Zealand First prevented the law being removed in 2018.

    • ‘Christchurch: where weird crime happens.’ TVNZ national news, 29 September 2009. (last viewed 15 July 2010). Back

Murder and manslaughter

Types of homicide

There are two main categories of culpable homicide (the illegal killing of one person by another) – murder and manslaughter. Murder is when one person kills another deliberately or while acting recklessly, knowing that death is likely. Manslaughter generally refers to accidental homicide arising from an unlawful act or failure to act, where death could not reasonably be expected.

Murder and manslaughter rates

Rates of reported murder and manslaughter (culpable homicides) increased steadily from an average of 18 a year in the 1950s to 43 in the 1970s. They reached a peak of over 90 per year between 1990 and 1992. Between 2000 and 2015 reported homicides stabilised at an average of 66 per year.

Before the 1970s about 10 murders a year were reported to the police. Numbers of reported murders rose in the 1970s and 1980s, with an average of 65 a year between 1985 and 1992. Reported murders have been very stable since 2001, averaging 43.2 a year up to 2015. Figures for 2015 indicate that 65% of homicide victims were male, 22% were under the age of five, and 35% were Māori. Weapons were used in 55% of all homicides but firearms were only used in 14% of all cases. In about half of all cases where the victim-offender relationship was known, the offender was a member of the victim's family.

Reasons for increases

There are a number of possible reasons for murder and manslaughter increases in the 1990s.

  • During the 1980s and 1990s a number of high-profile multiple killings increased the homicide rate.
  • Unemployment, which peaked in 1991 at 11% of the workforce, coincided with increased rates of homicide. As unemployment fell, there was a drop in recorded violence, including homicide.

Reasons for decreases

The decrease in the murder and manslaughter rate in the 21st century may be due to several factors.

  • Toughened gun control laws after the Aramoana massacre of 1990 restricted legal access to firearms, which were used in about 25% of all murders.
  • The expansion of women’s refuges and the full implementation of presumptive arrest in domestic-violence cases in the 1990s reduced the number of domestic homicides (which account for 40% of all murders).
  • Constant improvements in medical technology have reduced the number of deaths which result from potentially fatal trauma.

Penalties for homicide


In nearly all cases of murder, life imprisonment is mandatory. This usually means a non-parole period of at least 10 years. If one of a number of aggravating features is present – for instance, more than one person is killed, or the crime involves extreme cruelty – the automatic non-parole minimum is 17 years.

In the case of manslaughter, a judge has discretion to impose any penalty up to and including life imprisonment.

The longest non-parole period ever given in New Zealand is 30 years, to William Bell for murdering three people at the Mt Wellington–Panmure RSA club in 2001 while on parole for aggravated robbery.

First and last executions

The first person judicially executed in New Zealand was Maketū Wharetōtara, the son of the Ngāpuhi chief Ruhe of Waimate. He was publicly hanged in Auckland in 1842, aged about 16, after being convicted of killing five people. The last person hanged was Walter Bolton, a 68-year-old Whanganui farm manager who was executed in 1957 for poisoning his wife, Beatrice. The Crown alleged that Bolton had regularly put small amounts of powdered sheep dip (with arsenic) into her tea. Between 1842 and 1957, 85 people were executed for murder.

Capital punishment

Until 1941 hanging was mandatory for murder, although many death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. Nonetheless, 77 people were executed between the time New Zealand became a Crown colony in 1840 and abolition of the death penalty in 1941.

In 1950 capital punishment resumed as a result of public pressure, and eight more men were hanged before it was finally abolished in 1961. Only one woman was executed in New Zealand – Williamina (Minnie) Dean was hanged at Invercargill in 1895 for the murder of a baby.

Controversial murder trials, 1840–1939

Murder trials have always attracted public attention in New Zealand, particularly if the accused are female, or have relatives who occupy important public positions; or if babies or young children are the victims.

Thomas Hall

Thomas Hall, a member of one of Timaru’s elite families, was also the town’s most notorious murderer. His wife, Kate, inherited the estate of her wealthy stepfather, Captain Henry Cain, and then became mysteriously ill after her son was born, in mid-1886. When a visiting family member fell ill after drinking tea Hall had prepared for Kate, poisoning was suspected. Hall was arrested and found guilty of attempted murder and forgery. He was on the brink of bankruptcy and stood to gain from his wife’s will and two insurance policies.

After the trial, the body of Henry Cain was exhumed and was found to have been poisoned. Hall was convicted of Cain’s murder, but successfully appealed against a death sentence, perhaps because of his upper-class connections. After leaving prison in 1907, Hall received an annuity from his uncle, Sir John Hall, premier of New Zealand from 1879 to 1882.

Minnie Dean

Williamina (Minnie) Dean was the only woman hanged in New Zealand. She was sentenced to death in 1895 for the murder of 11-month-old Dorothy Edith Carter, whose body was buried in the garden of Dean’s home in Winton. The body of another baby, Eva Hornsby (1 month) and the skeleton of a small child were also found buried in the garden. Dean, an unregistered ‘baby farmer’ (who looked after unwanted children for pay), was caring for several other children at the time. Her trial highlighted the vulnerability of children born to unmarried mothers and the limited regulation of their care.

Lionel Terry

Lionel Terry shot Joe Kum Yung in Haining Street, Wellington, on 24 September 1905 as a protest against immigration by non-Europeans to New Zealand. He reported his crime at the nearest police station and handed over the revolver he had used. Terry made grandiose speeches at his trial about the need to rid the British Empire of ‘aliens’ and resisted suggestions that he was mentally ill.

Convicted of murder, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds of insanity. Terry spent the rest of his life in prisons or secure units in Sunnyside and Seacliff mental hospitals. He was frequently involved in escape attempts and violent interactions with prisoners and prison guards, and continued to assert the political nature of his crime.

Daniel Richard Cooper

Discovery of the bodies of three newborn children on a small farm in Newlands in 1923 led to the arrest of Daniel Richard Cooper and his wife, Martha Elizabeth, in Wellington. Cooper (who ran a ‘health business’ that included illegal abortions and adoption arrangements) had already been arrested for criminal abortion. The combination of murder and abortion charges contributed to high public interest in the murder trial. Cooper’s wife’s defence lawyer argued that she was not responsible because her husband had forced her to collaborate with him, and she was acquitted. Daniel Richard Cooper was found guilty and hanged.

Controversial murder trials, 1940 onwards

In the period after the Second World War there were some very significant murder trials. They included the 1954 trial of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, teenagers charged with the murder of Parker’s mother; the wrongful conviction in 1971 of Waikato farmer, Arthur Allan Thomas for the murder of his neighbours; and John Barlow’s three murder trials of for the double killing of Eugene and Gene Thomas in 1994.

Parker and Hulme

Pauline Parker (16) and Juliet Hulme (15) were convicted in 1954 of the murder of Pauline’s mother Honora, who received 45 blows to the head, hands and body in Christchurch's Victoria Park from half a brick wrapped in a lisle stocking. The girls said that she had fallen and hurt her head. Juliet, daughter of the rector of Canterbury University College, was about to leave New Zealand with her father to stay in South Africa, as her parents were separating. Pauline’s mother was seen as an impediment to Pauline accompanying Juliet when she left.

Pauline’s diary provided an account of their relationship, plans for the murder and a future in which the girls would write novels and pursue stardom in Hollywood. A defence of insanity was rejected. The girls were given life sentences which they served in different prisons before being released after five years. A book, a play and a Peter Jackson-directed movie, Heavenly creatures, present different interpretations of the relationship between the girls, the reasons for the murder, and the trial.

Arthur Allan Thomas

In 1971 Waikato farmer Arthur Allan Thomas was convicted of the 1970 murder of his neighbours Harvey and Jeanette Crewe at Pukekawa. The Crewes’ weighted bodies with bullet wounds had been discovered in the Waikato River three months after their disappearance. Mystery surrounded the identity of the person who fed Rochelle, the Crewes’ two-year-old daughter, discovered by her grandfather in her cot five days after her parents went missing.

Thomas protested his innocence and appealed his conviction in 1971. Granted a retrial, he was convicted again in 1973. Thomas served nine years of his sentence before being pardoned. A Royal commission of inquiry held over 64 days in 1980 found him wrongfully convicted. He was pardoned for the murders (effectively acquitted) and awarded almost a million dollars in compensation.

John Barlow, 1994

John Barlow was tried three times for the murder of father-and-son financiers Eugene and Gene Thomas, shot in their Wellington office building in 1994. Barlow, who had a loan from the Thomases, claimed that he went to the office for a meeting, found the bodies, panicked and departed with a CZ 27 pistol registered in his name, which he had earlier loaned to Eugene Thomas. The police found the pistol, .32-calibre ammunition and a cut-up silencer at a rubbish tip where Barlow dumped them the next day. However, the pistol had a .22-calibre barrel, while a .32-calibre gun had killed the Thomases. After two trials ended in hung juries, Barlow was convicted of murder in 1995. His appeal to the Privy Council was rejected in 2009, despite the finding that ‘unscientific and untenable’ FBI forensic evidence had been presented at the third trial.1  Barlow was released from prison in 2010.

Mark Lundy

In 2000 Palmerston North woman Christine Lundy and her daughter Amber were found bludgeoned to death in their home. Six months later, their husband and father Mark Lundy, who had been out of town on business on the night of their deaths, was charged with their murders. The prosecution alleged that he travelled from Petone to Palmerston North, committed the murders when he arrived home, and returned to Petone at high speed. Lundy was found guilty in 2002 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He continued to proclaim his innocence and his appeal was successfully heard by the Privy Council in London, which in 2013 overturned his conviction and ordered a retrial. However, he was tried again, convicted and returned to prison in 2015.


Mass murders, 1840–1989

Mass murders (the murder of four or more people at one time) have been rare in New Zealand, particularly before 1990. Noteworthy cases before 1990 include the following.

Maketū Wharetōtara

In 1841 five people were killed on a Bay of Islands farm by Maketū Wharetōtara (aged about 16), the son of Ngāpuhi chief Ruhe. Maketū killed his employer Elizabeth Roberton, her two children, Thomas Bull, and Isabella Brind, the granddaughter of Ngāpuhi leader Rewa. Abuse by Bull, who worked with Maketū on Roberton’s farm, appears to have prompted these murders. Maketū’s father handed his son over to the authorities to avoid conflict with Rewa. He was convicted and hanged in 1842.

James Stack

In September 1865 neighbours noticed that Ōtāhuhu woman Mary Finnigan and her three sons were missing. Finnigan’s son-in-law James Stack, who lived in the family home, said they had all gone to the West Coast goldfields. After Stack abruptly left Ōtāhuhu in December, the property was searched and the bodies of Mary, 17-year-old James and 14-year-old Benjamin were found buried in the garden. Stack was captured, tried and convicted of murdering the four Finnigans. He was hanged in 1866. The body of 10-year-old John was found in 1869.

Burgess gang

Five men were robbed and killed on the Maungatapu Track near Nelson in 1866 by members of the Burgess gang: Richard Burgess (also known as Hill), William (Phil) Levy, Thomas Noon (also known as Kelly) and Joseph Sullivan. After selling the gold they had stolen, the gang was arrested and Sullivan testified against the others. Burgess, Levy and Noon were found guilty and executed. Sullivan was sent to prison in Dunedin after being convicted of one of the murders. He was deported to England, but escaped to Australia and was imprisoned there before disappearing in 1876.

James Baxter

In 1908 Invercargill merchant James Baxter murdered his wife and five children in the family home before committing suicide. Baxter had been ill with cholera the month before and acquaintances noted at the inquest that he seemed depressed leading up to the murders, but his motive remained a mystery. 

Hēnare Hona

Four family members were killed near Te Kūiti in 1934 by 20-year-old Hēnare Hona. While being arrested for the murders, Hona also killed police constable Thomas Heeps with a .32 pistol. He then committed suicide.

Stanley Graham

In 1941 seven people were killed in Kōwhitirangi on the South Island’s West Coast by 41-year-old farmer Stanley Graham, who had refused to hand over his rifle to police as part of the war effort. Among the dead were police sergeant William Cooper, and constables Edward Best, Frederick Jordan and Percy Tulloch. Eleven days later Graham died in the bush from gunshot wounds inflicted by police and home guardsmen.

Mass homicides, 1990 –

David Gray

Thirteen people were killed in Aramoana in 1990 by 33-year-old David Gray, including police constable Stewart Guthrie. During a siege the next day, Gray was shot dead by police.

Brian Schlaepfer

In 1992 in Paerātā, south of Auckland, 64-year-old Brian Schlaepfer murdered his wife, his three sons, the wife of one of his sons and a grandson. He then killed himself. Schlaepfer’s granddaughter Linda survived the killings by barricading herself in a bedroom.

Raymond Ratima

Seven members of his family were killed in Masterton by 25-year-old Raymond Ratima in 1992, including three of his own children. Ratima and his wife were having problems in their relationship, and were living with her parents. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bain family killings

Five members of the Bain family were killed in Dunedin in 1994. In 1995 22-year-old David Bain, the only survivor, was convicted of murdering his mother, his father, his two sisters and his younger brother. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 16-year non-parole period.

From the start there was controversy over whether David was responsible or whether his father had killed the others and then shot himself. After an appeal to the Privy Council succeeded in 2007, there was a retrial in the Christchurch High Court and Bain was acquitted in 2009.

Alan Lory

Six residents of the New Empire Hotel in Hamilton died when Alan Lory (41) set fire to the building in 1995. Lory was acquitted of murder but convicted of manslaughter and arson, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Lory was released in 2009.

Stephen Anderson

22-year-old Stephen Anderson killed six people and wounded another eight at a ski lodge in Raurimu, south-east of Taumarunui, on 8 February 1997. Some of the dead were family and friends who had been invited to join the Anderson family for the weekend. Found to be legally insane, Anderson was committed to secure psychiatric care. He was freed from care in 2009 but recalled in 2011. He was again released and worked as a tutor at a Wellington art school, but lost his job after his position was the subject of a 2014 newspaper article.

Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks

On 15 March, a self-proclaimed ‘white nationalist’ opened fire on worshippers at mosques in Deans Ave and Linwood, killing 51 people and wounding 49. The Australian-born gunman used five weapons, including two semi-automatic assault rifles, in the attack. The death toll might have been even higher but for the heroism displayed by unarmed men at both mosques, and by the police officers who forced the assailant’s car off the road in central Christchurch. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described it as one of New Zealand’s darkest days.

Killers who kill again

It is rare for people to kill more than once, but when they do, public pressure increases for bringing back capital punishment. At least 14 people with previous convictions for murder or manslaughter have killed again in New Zealand.

David Wayne Tamihere

David Wayne Tamihere killed Auckland stripper Mary Barcham in 1972 by hitting her on the head with an air rifle, and was convicted of manslaughter. Tamihere was convicted of murdering Swedish tourists Heidi Paakkonen and Urban Hoglen on the Coromandel Peninsula in 1989, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Dennis Luke and Rufus Marsh

In 1975 Dennis Luke and Rufus Marsh were convicted of kicking a 70-year-old pensioner, Taffy Williamson, to death in Wellington. Luke was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, while Marsh was given seven years for manslaughter. In 1986, in a home invasion, Marsh beat and stabbed Diane Miller to death in her Wellington flat. Convicted of murder, he died in prison in 2010.

Luke also killed again. In 1992, while on parole for the Williamson murder, Luke and three Black Power associates murdered Crown witness Christopher Crean – who was to testify against three of them – in New Plymouth. Luke was sentenced to a second life term, with a 14-year minimum. In 2016 he remained in prison.

Graeme Burton

Graeme Burton stabbed lighting technician Neville Anderson to death outside a Wellington nightclub in 1992 and was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. He was paroled in mid-2006. In January 2007 he murdered quad-biker Karl Kuchenbecker, and wounded Karl Holmes, Jeremy Simpson and Kate Rea in a random shooting. Burton received a life sentence with a 26-year non-parole period.

Convictions overturned

In 1972 Dean Wickliffe was convicted of shooting Wellington jeweller Paul Miet during a robbery. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, but on appeal in 1986 the conviction was reduced to manslaughter. Wickliffe was re-sentenced to life imprisonment but was paroled the next year. In 1997 he was convicted of shooting gang member Richard Bluett in 1996, and for a second time he received a life sentence for murder. Following an appeal, he was re-tried and acquitted in 1999.

William Johansson

William Johansson and seven other men beat Benjamin Halaholo to death in 1995. Convicted of manslaughter, Johansson received a two-year suspended sentence and 10 months’ periodic detention. In 2002 he masterminded a robbery spree in Auckland during which pizza worker Marcus Doig and bank teller John Vaughan were fatally shot. Convicted of murder, Johansson was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 23-year minimum sentence.

Malcolm Francis

Malcolm Francis killed his wife, Janet, in their Hastings home in 1983 and received a four-year sentence for manslaughter. In 2001 he killed his former partner, Wathanak Tea. Convicted of manslaughter, he was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment with a non-parole period of 12 years.

Robberies and assaults

Robbery and violence

Robberies differ from burglaries in that they are thefts that involve the use or threat of violence. Robberies are divided into two principal types: simple robbery, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment; and aggravated robbery, which carries 14 years. Aggravated robbery is robbery committed by more than one person, or with a weapon, or where a victim is grievously injured.

Since the 1950s the incidence of robbery has grown exponentially. Robberies jumped sharply after 1970, reaching 1,954 in 1996 – 68 times more than the 1950 total and 12 times more than in 1970. After this robbery numbers fell, but they began to rise again from 2004. The figure of 2,916 robberies for 2006 was 73% greater than that of 1999. The number of annual reported robberies then fell, stabilising at around 2,000 offences per year between 2012 and 2014. The new police statistical reports indicate that between 2015 and 2016 victimisations for robbery and related offences grew from 3,108 to 3,588.

Increasing use of EFTPOS and credit cards has made robbery far less profitable than it was, and much-improved security – including security guards outside banks – has sharply reduced the chances of getaway. The majority of robberies involve minor heists. Large-scale robberies are vigorously investigated, with the perpetrators usually identified and sent to prison for lengthy periods. As a result, in the 1990s the professional robber began to disappear. Robbers were younger and less sophisticated, and the big hauls of the past – such as the $295,000 security van hold-up at an Auckland Foodtown supermarket in 1984 – were rare in the 21st century.

Rates of aggravated robbery

As with other forms of violence, New Zealand has seen an increase not only in the incidence of robbery, but also in its seriousness. In the early 1960s, for example, robbery figures were less than 4% of the robbery rate in the early 21st century, and only about 10% were aggravated robberies. By 2000 approximately 91% of all robberies were aggravated.

Desperate for a smoke

A woman encountered a man waving a handgun at her when he entered her home in the Hamilton suburb of Nawton in October 2009, demanding cigarettes and cash. He then fled the property and she phoned the police. Her children remained asleep throughout the incident.

Grievous and serious assaults

Increasing assault rates

Like other forms of violent crime, non-sexual assaults increased considerably after 1950. The number of recorded assaults in 1970 was more than seven times that of 1950. Between 1970 and 1980 recorded assaults increased by 70%, and they grew another 55% by 1990.

Like homicides, recorded assaults peaked in the mid-1990s. They reached 36,000, then stabilised and fell. After 1999, however, assault figures steadily increased, reaching an all-time high of 45,275 in 2009. In 2014 numbers of offences in this category had dropped to 39,944.

Increasing seriousness

The seriousness of assaults has also increased. In 1978 police figures for non-sexual assaults were divided into three categories: minor (generally with a maximum of one year’s imprisonment or less), serious (with a maximum of three years or less) and grievous (with a maximum of up to 14 years).

In 1978 a third of all assaults were identified as ‘serious’ or ‘grievous’. By 2008 nearly two-thirds were listed under these headings. Serious assaults grew tenfold in that 30-year period; grievous assaults grew 44-fold. Changes in police recording methods make long-term comparisons difficult, but annual 'serious assaults resulting in injury' increased from about 8,000 in the late 1990s to a peak of almost 12,000 ten years later. By 2014 they had dropped to around 10,000. From this point the picture is unclear. According to police data, assault victimisations grew from 45,894 in 2015 to 50,031 in 2016. In the year ending May 2018, of the 49,920 assault victimisations recorded, 50% were common assaults, 27% were serious assaults without injury and 23% were serious assaults with injury. But due to the recording change in 2014 these figures are not comparable with previous data.

Sexual assault

Rape and sexual violation

Before 1985 most sexual assaults were divided into the major categories of rape (and attempted rape) and indecent assault. Rape carried a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment; attempted rape carried 10 years and indecent assault seven years.

Someone you know

Sexual assault is often thought of as an attack by a stranger. However, interviews with 48 women who contacted police with a rape or sexual violation complaint between 1990 and 1994 found that 70% of the people responsible were known to the victims. Interviewer Jan Jordan commented that perpetrators included ‘spouses and ex-spouses, boyfriends, family members (including brothers-in-law, future fathers-in-law), neighbours, acquaintances (including friends of friends or of partners, co-residents, fellow party guests), and those with whom the woman may have had a professional relationship (such as a doctor, teacher, counsellor or masseuse)’.1

Rape became a significant public issue in the 1970s and politicians were lobbied by community groups like Rape Crisis to change the law and policing practices. Women's groups criticised the focus on the sexual history of complainants during rape trials, and police procedures that discouraged women from making rape complaints – including the stress of medical examinations by police surgeons. Feminists argued that rape victims often experienced a ‘double violation’ if they laid a complaint.2

In 1985 there was a major amendment to the Crimes Act 1961. Rape within marriage was now a crime, and the distinction between rape and other forms of sexual violence was reduced. The new law focused on ‘sexual violation’, which included rape, and ‘unlawful sexual connection’ (other forms of non-consensual sexual penetration or sexual–oral contact). Sexual violation carried a maximum sentence of 14 years, which was increased to 20 years in 1993. Issues relating to consent to sexual contact were also addressed in this legislation.

Comparison of sexual attack figures in the post-war era is complicated by legislative changes. Differences in recording methods following law changes in 1961 and 1985 also make long-term comparisons difficult.

Reported rape

The average number of rapes reported to the police each year has grown rapidly since the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1954 an average of 18 rapes were reported to the police each year. By the 1970s the average number of reported rapes was 253, and it was 330 before the 1985 law change took effect in 1986.

After this, police statistics are unreliable, but Statistics New Zealand figures show that reported rapes were stable between 1994 and 2004, averaging 475 a year. In the following 10 years they increased by around 30%, to an average of 620 a year. Reported rapes have grown steadily in the 21st century. In 2000 there were 457 reported rapes. From this point they increased almost every year, peaking at 775 in 2014 – the highest figure on record.

Auckland serial rapist

Malcolm Rewa had already spent four and a half years in prison for rape before embarking on over 20 sexual attacks on women between 1987 and 1996 – mainly late at night or just before dawn. Forensic evidence and a blood sample provided by Rewa’s father led police to suspect that Rewa was responsible for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett in Papatoetoe in March 1992 and the rape of a woman in Mt Eden in 1996. After a three-month trial for 24 rapes in 1998, Rewa was sentenced to preventive detention with a 22-year minimum parole period. In December 1998 he was found guilty of Burdett’s rape, but not of her murder. He received a 14-year concurrent sentence.

Sexual attacks

Rates of reported sexual attacks have also increased dramatically. There were 908 reported sexual attacks in 1978, increasing steeply to a peak of 3,222 in 1993. This data cannot be compared with data after 1997, as reported attacks which were identified after investigation as ‘no offence disclosed’ were removed from the record.

Between 1997 and 2009, the number of recorded sexual attacks was relatively stable, averaging over 2,500 a year. Rates of recorded sexual assault rose significantly in the second decade of the 21st century. There were 3,016 recorded sexual assaults in 2010, which steadily rose to 4,046 in 2014. This was the highest number of sexual attacks on record. Of all reported sexual assaults in 2014, only half were resolved. Statistics since 2014 are not comparable but police figures show that victimisations for sexual assault rose from 5,277 in 2015 to 5,508 in 2016.

Despite the rise in recorded sexual assaults, it is estimated that only about 10% of this type of assault are reported to the police. A review of 1,955 sexual violation offences involving adults reported to the police between 1 July 2005 and 31 December 2007 concluded that 31% of all reported complaints led to prosecutions and 42% of these prosecutions resulted in a conviction. Thirty-four per cent of the 1,955 complaints were classified as ‘no offence’ and of these, almost a quarter were defined as ‘false complaints’.3

Reasons for increases in sexual assault

Changes to the law in the 1980s made it easier to report sexual assault, and probably contributed to increased rates of reported offences in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was also an increase in reports of sexual offences that had occurred some years before – nearly 60% all convictions for sexual offences recorded in 1997 were for incidents that occurred at least two years previously.

Sexual violence and the criminal justice system

While rates of reported sexual violence increased after changes in the law in the 1980s, rates of prosecution of rape and sexual assault continued to be relatively low. In the 2010s there was increasing attention to how the New Zealand criminal justice system responded to incidents of sexual violence reported to the police. Alternatives to the adversarial model used in trials for rape and sexual assault were presented. It was argued that the trauma of appearing in court and giving evidence discouraged women from reporting sexual violence. As a result a two-year pilot project using specially trained judges for sexual violence cases in selected district courts began in late 2016. If this experiment is successful, specialist sexual violence courts will be set up across New Zealand.

Impact of sexual assault

Rape and sexual assault can affect people in different ways, depending on the circumstances of the assault and the relationship to the perpetrator. The impact can include increased fear and anxiety, lack of trust in personal relationships, loss of confidence, depression and anger. The experience of rape and sexual assault can have an impact on victims’ employment and study and this can affect their financial circumstances. Shame and personal embarrassment are experienced. Girls and young women who have experienced sexual violence are more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as alcohol and drug abuse. The family and friends of victims can also be affected by their experiences of rape and sexual assault.

    • Jan Jordan, ‘Worlds apart? Women, rape and the police reporting process.’ British Journal of Criminology 41 (2001), p. 685. Back
    • R. Barrington, ‘Rape law reform.’ Women's Studies International Forum 9 no. 1 (1986), p. 58. Back
    • Triggs, S., Mosman, E, Jordan, J. and Kingi, F. (2009) Responding to Sexual Violence: Attrition in the New Zealand Criminal Justice System. Commissioned by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Crime and Justice Research Centre, Te Puni Rangahau, Taihara Ture,Victoria University of Wellington. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Greg Newbold, 'Violent crime', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2021)

Story by Greg Newbold, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 18 Mar 2019