Pointing a water pistol at a forest fire: NZ crime rates out of control

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
8 June, 2023

Businesses typically avoid taking a stance on contentious political matters, particularly during election campaigns. That makes this week’s media release from New Zealand’s Foodstuffs North Island quite remarkable.

But before we get to its release, we may need to explain Foodstuffs to Australian readers. The company is New Zealand’s largest retailer. It is a cooperative, operating under the brands New World, PAK’n’SAVE, Four Square, Gilmours and Liquorland. Think of Coles, IGA and Dan Murphy’s combined.

In their media statement, Foodstuffs North Island did not mince their words on the state of retail crime in New Zealand. And their numbers are startling. They reported a 38 per cent increase in reported incidents of retail crime between February and April 2023 compared to the same period last year.

Incidents such as burglary, assault, robbery, and other aggressive, violent, and threatening behaviour are up 36 per cent for the same quarter, year on year. Shoplifting was up even higher – 57 per cent over the past 12 months.

“Our grocers have never seen retail crime at these levels. It’s an extremely concerning trend, and it’s unacceptable,” said Foodstuffs’ chief executive Chris Quin.

And it is not just Foodstuffs. Rising crime in New Zealand is an issue for society at large. And if the cost-of-living crisis were not dominating New Zealand politics as much as it is, crime would be the number one issue in this year’s election.

New Zealand used to be a peaceful country in which people had little reason to be concerned about crime. As recently as 2020, about one in eight New Zealand households did not lock their properties. Almost half of New Zealanders did not have locks on their windows, and about the same number did not lock their garages when their cars were parked inside.

New Zealanders felt safe back then. But things have changed dramatically, and not for the better.

New Zealanders believe that crime is a bigger issue now than five years ago, as per a recent poll for the New Zealand Herald. Two-thirds of Kiwis are more concerned that they may be a victim of crime today than they were five years ago. Only five per cent stated they were less worried about crime.

And no wonder: The data underlines that it is not just a matter of perception.

In the 2022 calendar year, police recorded 516 ram raids. That is when offenders drive stolen vehicles into stores to rob them – often not gaining more than petty cash and a few cigarettes. Among the offenders identified, only 12 per cent were adults. The majority were teenagers, and ten per cent were even younger than 13 years.

Membership of gangs also seems to have increased. In 2016, there were 4,420 gang members on the police National Gang List, which now stands at 8,875. Every year, that list has grown by about 1,000 gang members. That said, nobody has an accurate figure on gang membership. It is essentially a list the police maintain and populate themselves, but at least it indicates that organised crime is not a marginal feature in New Zealand.

The organised nature of crime is also reflected in the Foodstuffs experience. “The trend we’re increasingly seeing is professional criminals who’re stealing brand-specific goods to order,” said Chris Quin. “That’s not something we’ve seen before at these levels.”

Crime Stoppers, an independent charity that reports anonymous information to police, has launched a campaign urging people to report any suspicious activity related to ram raids.

The government’s response to this crisis leaves much to be desired. Hiring an extra 1,800 police has not substantially increased the visibility of law enforcement in New Zealand cities. Apart from that, the government’s main policy for dealing with retail crime has been a programme subsidising fog cannons for shops and supermarkets.

While this may be a novel approach to deter retail crime, it remains a reactive measure that does little to address the root causes of the problem. It might make for good headlines, but it does little to quell the flames. It is akin to trying to put out a forest fire with a water pistol.

More seriously, it appears the government has taken its eyes off the ball regarding crime and law enforcement. Indeed, statistics paint a stark picture of the crime situation in New Zealand under its Labour-led government.

Between 2017 and 2022, reported victims of crime increased by 12 per cent. This is a significant rise that underscores the growing concern among New Zealanders about their safety and security.

However, while the number of reported victims has been on the rise, the number of offenders arrested and convicted has been on a downward trend.

Arrests have decreased by 25 per cent, and convictions have fallen by 26 per cent over the same period. This suggests a widening gap between the number of crimes committed and the number of criminals brought to justice.

The number of people imprisoned has also seen a significant decrease, down by 45 per cent. This startling figure raises questions about the criminal justice system’s effectiveness in deterring crime.

The situation becomes even more concerning when we look at the changes in reported crimes over the same period. Reported crime has surged by 33 per cent, yet police actions have decreased by 26 per cent. Convictions have also fallen by 25 per cent, and prison sentences have dropped by 38 per cent.

These figures indicate a troubling trend. As crime rates rise, the response from the criminal justice system appears to be flagging.

The implications of these trends for New Zealand society are profound. The rise in crime and decreased arrests, convictions, and imprisonments contribute to a growing sense of lawlessness. This is not the New Zealand anyone knew, a country that has long prided itself on its safety and tranquillity.

The government’s reactive measures, such as the fog cannon programme, are insufficient. They may provide temporary relief but do not address the root causes of the crime wave.

New Zealand would need a different, proactive approach to crime prevention. This includes addressing social issues contributing to crime, such as poor education attendance and attainment.

The government should also reassess its approach to law enforcement. The decrease in police actions, despite the increase in reported crime, is a worrying trend. Where criminals do not need to fear being brought to justice, they will continue their activities.

In its recent media release, Foodstuffs has expressed a plea for assistance. And perhaps the path from New Zealand to San Francisco-style crime levels is shorter than one might have thought.

That is a concern for New Zealanders. And it should be a massive headache for the government this election year.

Read here

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates