Transitioning to Community-Centered Policing at the New Zealand Police
An Insight from the 2018 Public Safety Summit
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Strategic shifts made by the New Zealand Police are starting to attract international attention. In particular, a bold new policing model developed in 2009/10, which formed the centerpiece of an ambitious “Policing Excellence” transformation program, has been credited with significant reductions in crime and victimization, decreases in ‘downstream’ pressure on the criminal justice system, and reinvestment of freed-up officer time into further harm-prevention work.

Guided by a “Prevention First” operating strategy, a more mobile New Zealand Police workforce has achieved impressive productivity gains, and helped build enhanced public trust and confidence. During his presentation at The 2018 Public Safety Summit: Leadership in Turbulent Times, the principal architect of this new policing model, Commissioner Mike Bush, introduced his organization’s shift from a prosecution to a prevention mindset, and from a largely offender-centric approach to one where the needs of victims are at the center of policing.

The New Zealand police department has approximately 12,500 officers serving 4.7 million people, and is on pace to increase its size to 14,500 over the near term. The department is unique in that it serves the whole country and doesn’t operate on a tiered system (e.g. federal, county, municipal). Instead, they are able to operate without some of the jurisdictional hurdles that can complicate public safety in other countries.

In 2008, the police department was under significant pressure. The Global Financial Crisis put a crunch on government budgeting, which meant fewer resources for policing. The department was also under public and political scrutiny for questionable tactics during a high profile anti-terror operation. At the time, the New Zealand police department was also reliant on a prosecution model of policing, which required a high level of resources, but was not working well. The public had questions, there were increased reports of crime, and the department had few obvious wins it could point to.

Going Back to Go Forward

Bush was promoted to his role during this troubled period and was tasked with finding a new model to help the department improve. In order to do this, he started researching the policing models used by other departments worldwide. Bush also started looking at historical material on policing and through that work found the basis for New Zealand’s current model. In 1829, Sir Robert Peel was credited with developing the Principles of Policing - nine precepts for how to run an effective police department. The bulk of those ideas were about maintaining a strong relationship with the community instead of viewing each individual as a potential troublemaker.

A New Operating Model

Bush identified three core components of his new operating model that are designed to facilitate the cultural shift from prosecution to prevention; from policing as warriors to policing as guardians.

  1. Identify factors driving crime. Bush and his colleagues set about identifying what specific issues were leading to crime. They identified structural problems like organized crime as well as social issues like substance misuse. By being able to create a specific problem set, they could also work through ways to address those problems and reduce the demand for crime.
  2. Deploy targeted interventions. Once the problems were identified, Bush and his team created a framework around how best to deploy existing police resources to cut down on the motivation and opportunity to commit crimes.
  3. Change organizational mindset. The final pillar of the new model is the most important as it required not just buy-in from every officer but also changed how the department viewed the public. Police officers would be tasked with rethinking how they view potential offenders, with an eye toward working with them instead of just prosecuting them. The change in mindset also had to happen at the government level in order to align policymakers and get support. Doing this requires managing and communicating up and down the chain of command with a clear and consistent message.

The shift to community-centered policing started paying off in small ways. Police officers were working with people to get them the resources they need rather than writing up tickets citizens couldn’t afford and daring them to figure it out on their own. The new model also places a strong emphasis on crime prevention. If the police department becomes a place where people can get help before they act out, the overall rate of crime goes down and public trust in the institution goes up.

“You put prevention at the front of what you do and what you think, and that will make a difference throughout.”

Mike Bush
Commissioner, New Zealand Police

Putting the Model Into Action

It’s one thing to outline how an organization should operate; it’s another thing to actually make a new model work. Once Bush and his team had outlined the three pillars they would use to change the organization, they had to set about making that change. To drive change, the department began leveraging technology in new ways to help individuals find resources, to help police in the field provide support to citizens, and to reduce demand on the justice system by finding solutions that didn’t mean sending every case to court.

A big part of the change in mindset at the police department was giving officers new tools and empowering them to use their own discretion in terms of when to prosecute. That doesn’t mean letting a robber off the hook. But, it might mean that an officer could help a single parent in peril get documentation or access to public services, rather than writing a summons.

In addition to introducing enabling technology, Bush focused on helping officers become more empathetic. The police department refocused its mission statement around a sense of community spirit and caring. From there, leaders worked to ensure that everyone throughout the organization knew and understood this mission. Bush worked with officers to help them connect with individuals and understand how circumstances might send someone into harm’s way. Instead of putting offenders on an escalator path to court, the goal was to seek alternatives to prosecution.

The focus on empathy and understanding also led to the rise of restorative justice approaches. The police department borrowed from the tribal models of the indigenous Maori people to create a program called Iwi Justice Panels. Rather than sending people to court, offenders can go to an Iwi program which attempts to understand why someone is offending and help them find resources that will help them avoid new charges. New Zealand now has 40 of these panels spread throughout the country.

“How did we bring the entire organization, who thought like I did, into the 21st century? Dealing with their mindset.”

Mike Bush
Commissioner, New Zealand Police


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