Advocates fear police plans to pull back from family harm callouts will lead to more harm

By Krystal Gibbens for RNZ

Advocates say police's intentions to withdraw from family harm callouts will only cause more harm.

In a recent briefing to incoming Police Minister Mark Mitchell, the police department proposed a managed withdrawal from what it considered non-crime social problems.

Police said it had been forced to step in when it came to family harm, mental health, and child protection calls due to a lack of other social services.

But it said more than half of its family harm investigations did not involve an offence being recorded.

It proposed a change that would involve withdrawal from some of those callouts over time and advocating for that role to be filled by others.

But it was a proposal that has shocked those who advocate for victims.

Women's Refuge chief executive Ang Jury.
Women's Refuge chief executive Ang Jury. Photo credit: File Photo

"People don't invite police around just because they feel like a visit. They invite them around because they're scared," Women's Refuge chief executive Ang Jury said.

She could not see any other agency that could step in and take the role of police.

"Police is the only agency in this country that actually has the power and the authority to deal with potentially dangerous situations."

And if offences were not being recorded at family callouts, Jury said that was not necessarily because they did not exist.

She said a prime example was breaches of protection orders.

"Breaches of protection order are an offence. Yet the vast majority of them are never result in a charge. That doesn't mean to say they shouldn't."

Family lawyer Vicki Currie said she was concerned that cases of family violence would be missed if police did not attend callouts anymore.

She said when they attended a callout, a family violence incident was recorded and then shared with other agencies such as Women's Refugee and Oranga Tamariki.

"If the police aren't attending callouts then it's not coming to the attention of [those] agencies," she said.

"The reality is there is no other agency with the power to arrest and detain people at family harm incidents. There is no other agency that has the necessary tools to deal with mental health crisis and child protection and, in my view, it is the responsibility of the New Zealand Police to be at the frontline and dealing with these issues," Currie said.

Police 'going to triage differently'

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said its attendance to family harm callouts had increased 80 percent in 10 years.

That meant police time was being consumed in homes and away from the public places where people wanted to see them, he said.

Coster said family harm callouts could involve a complex mix of social problems including, drugs, financial issues and mental health.

"Part of the challenge is that there is no one agency that obviously deals with that, and by default police becomes the one that they call.

"We're signalling that we are going to triage differently on these events and we do need to prioritise our response to the things that only police can do," Coster said.

"Which for a time potentially will create a gap in terms of who is ... available to respond to some of these situations."

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo credit: AM

He said there were some community initiatives to help respond to these social issues, and the government had signalled that it would put more funding into those types of responses.

"I'm confident that where a police response is required people are increasingly willing to contact us and they will continue to get a response," Coster said.

"What we're signalling here is that our policy of mandatory attendance at every family harm event, regardless of whether any violence or criminal activity has been signalled is not sustainable for us."

In its briefing, police also said that to improve the response rates for non-urgent (priority two and below) family harm events and reduce demand on its frontline, Police had conducted a six-month Proof of Concept (POC).

"Ending in June 2023 that trialled a phoned-based triage service to provide timely risk assessment of further harm and help identify the appropriate support required," the briefing said.

"The POC identified benefits in relieving frontline pressure and increasing victim trust in the police response."

Coster said an expansion of that pilot was being considered.

But Jury was sceptical.

She said over the phone, the caller may not provide all the relevant information.

"Family violence victims, will often underplay what it is that's happening for a variety of reasons and they may not necessarily be providing enough information for that call taker to triage effectively," she said.

She also remained worried about the wider ramifications of police withdrawing.

"We simply cannot go back to the days of someone at the police station picking up a phone and saying 'oh well you know it's just a bit of a domestic, don't really need anyone to come out for it'."