Wanaka and the surrounding areas may be known as generally safe places, but they still have a busy Police department, with two officers on active duty most days and at least one on-call every night.
So what is the police force dealing with, and what do those tasked with crime prevention think about a community seemingly determined not to lock its doors? The Wanaka Sun was invited along to find out.
Wanaka Police Station is in immaculate condition. It is only four years old, but it’s also probably not the busiest police station in New Zealand.
It has three cells, two interview rooms and a car park full of response vehicles, plus an overflow section for mass arrests, although that’s never been used.
Still, examples of crime in Wanaka don’t spring readily to most people’s minds, but after three years as a police officer here, Constable Deane Harbison doesn’t struggle.
“About 40 percent of our calls for service are traffic-related: driving complaints, vehicle crashes and catching drink drivers. The rest, in no particular order, is made up of theft, especially shoplifting, family harm incidents [and] mental health.
“Generally it’s a pretty safe town. If people don’t lock their house and cars, then I guess they are setting themselves up to fail, even in this town, especially with cars and opportunist theft. It’s a great feeling living in a town that you can do that in, but sooner or later it’s probably going to backfire.”
A safe town it may be, but as he knows only too well, Wanaka is not immune to serious crimes, with the 2015 assault of Kahu Vincent probably the worst in recent memory. Constable Harbison agrees that nothing as serious has happened since, but says the town is far from crime-free, with one factor common among many offences.
“It’s alcohol. It’s not just isolated to Wanaka, it’s a culture thing in New Zealand. On the increase is alcohol-related violence and abuse. If you look at pages on what we deal with, whether it’s mental health or family harm, the underlying issue is alcohol. Even in the home, people drinking a bottle of wine a night.”
So what are police doing about it?
“In recent years, the Liquor Licensing Act has been quite significant. You’ll see police every Thursday, Friday and Saturday making bar visits and making sure they are complying. What they are trying to achieve is to prevent people getting intoxicated in bars and becoming victims of crime or offenders.
“Another issue is weddings and bus-loads of a hundred intoxicated people coming into town. It’s a big priority for us. It’s a good industry for the town, but it also gives us a lot of issues. At wedding receptions, they don’t police their drinking like the bars so people get really tanked up.”
One offence that Wanaka is familiar with is the use, possession and selling of drugs, particularly marijuana. Does the town have a problem?
“Not more than anywhere else. It’s always a problem. People do have a lax attitude around marijuana here. Marijuana is often a precursor to other drugs and particularly if it’s used by young people, it’s very, very harmful.
“I would say it’s something we are constantly mindful of and make efforts to detect when we can. It’s information from the public that really helps us. It’s easy to detect because you can smell it, but as for those people selling it, which is our main focus, we need information to act.”
With some of the more serious offences covered, we touch on everyday infringements like speeding and a famed source of local frustration; tourist drivers. He has opinions on both.
“There’s a few areas that speeding is a problem. In town, I don’t think it’s major. It’s definitely something we keep an eye on.
“People seem to get behind the wheel of a car and be in a hurry. I think it’s that aggressiveness New Zealanders need to look at and be more relaxed. We are not going to achieve anything by overtaking someone, so just get there five to ten minutes later.”
And tourist drivers?
“We get a lot of complaints. When I am out and about and I’m not working, it’s generally about tourist drivers. We have to look at ourselves as well and how we react to those tourist drivers. We can be quite aggressive to them sometimes. We have to remember we live in a tourist town and we need to be patient, but always using *555 [to report driving concerns] as well.”
The interview wouldn’t be complete without asking about the famous Crimeline, a weekly summary of resident behaviour that can include anything from assaults to the damaging of a letterbox. It’s developed a cult following in town and Constable Harbison sees it as an important tool.
“It’s a good area for us to get messages across. I guess some people will read it and go ‘they are bleating on about that again’, but if you read it in there, it’s a problem. We want the public to read that and think about how they are behaving. We always try to make it a bit fun for people or they will stop reading it."
Pictured: Constable Deane Harbison. Photo: Rob White
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