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History of the New Zealand Police
The New Zealand police turned 100 in September 1986. Today it is as efficient and up-to-date as any of its counterparts in the Western World and better than most. It employs more than 8000 police and non-sworn staff in some 400 locations and provides the only 24 hour, seven days a week emergency service. It deals with more than 1.6 million incidents and offences each year.
The New Zealand Police Force was established in 1886, modelled on the British system, the chief difference being that New Zealand has a national service while Britain's is divided into autonomous constabularies.

Earliest years

When Governor Hobson arrived from New South Wales in 1840, he empowered police magistrates to appoint policemen. Six years later, on 9 October 1846, an ordinance for the establishment and maintenance of a constabulary force was passed. This Act described the police force as a 'sufficient number of fit and able men who would serve as an armed force for preserving the peace and preventing robberies and other felonies and apprehending offenders against the peace'. The force was also deployed during the Land Wars during 1846-47.

First rules and regulation

The first rules and regulations governing police were issued in 1852 and were borrowed extensively from the summary of the principal constabulary duties, prescribed by British law.

Provincial police forces

Provincial councils set up police forces in 1853, initially in Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, Otago and later in the other provinces. They kept their houses in order, especially in the towns. A 1957, newspaper of the day: reported 'Wellington and Auckland each have a smart police force of about twenty men. Theft and violence are particularly rare.' This account said police duty consisted of keeping the peace among tipsy sailors, sawyers, and bush settlers and occasionally capturing and incarcerating them.

Gold rush crime

With the discovery of gold in Otago and Canterbury in the early 1860's, the police had an extremely difficult time keeping the peace in the 'wild west' environment. Desperadoes were among the people who came to make their fortunes, some escaped criminals from Australia and many crimes of violence and theft were committed.

At the same time the immigration inflow gave police recruiters golden opportunities. They waited at the docks and waylaid and persuaded many suitable-looking men to join the constabularies.

First national police force

The Armed Constabulary Force was raised under an 1867 Ordinance to become the first national police service. The Armed Constabulary was para-military and troopers, constables and their officers served in the New Zealand Land Wars as well as keeping civil order. Many died in the fighting as did Maori who resisted the colonisation processes especially confiscation or other alienation of their land. Paradoxically, many members of the Armed Constabulary were Maori.

By 1870-71, with the fighting significantly diminished, the then Minister of Defence reported to Parliament that officers and men of the Armed Constabulary were being constantly and usefully employed on road and other works. One tribute to their skills can be seen today - a beautiful arched stone bridge across a stream giving access to the Queenstown Police Station.

Provincial police forces abolished

In 1877, following the abolition of the provinces, provincial police forces were absorbed into the New Zealand Constabulary Force which was then formed into a field and a police force. There were still difficulties between settlers and Maoris over land and the colonisation processes. The field force was chiefly concerned with these troubles and a military officer was in charge of both branches.

The New Zealand Police Force 1886

New Zealand got its first national civil police force when Parliament passed the Police Force Act 1886. From then, the Force put away its guns and conducted its duties in a community which generally respected the law. Except in grave emergencies, firearms were neither desired nor necessary to keep order and this minimum force approach prevails today.

The early police commissioners were army officers. The first was General Sir George Whitmore (1886-87), who played a major, although unpopular role during the Land Wars. He was succeeded by Major Walter Gudgeon (1887-1903), who was also a Land Wars commander. Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Hume, a former 79th Highlander who later specialised in prisons administration was appointed commissioner (1890-1897) and he remained in charge until the appointment of the first career police office, John Tunbridge (1897-1903). Tunbridge was an experienced British police officer, brought to New Zealand especially to supervise the transition to a modern civil police.

Commissioner's baton

John Cullen was appointed Commissioner in 1912, the first New Zealand police officer to pass through the ranks from constable. This established a principle that every police officer entering the police college potentially 'carries the commissioner's baton.' To this day each commissioner takes officer after rising through the ranks.

There was an exception in 1955 when civilian Sam Barnett was appointed Controller-General by the Government, following a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the conduct of the previous commissioner Eric Compton. Mr Compton had been required to resign prematurely following the inquiry into allegations he had illegally tapped telephones, had work done on his own home by police officers on duty, concerns over the conduct of police staff in relation to policing bookmaker activity, whether he had been lax in the maintenance of licensing laws and other matters. The inquiry found little evidence against Mr Compton but police and the Government had so little faith in him, he was forced to resign.

Sam Barnett's appointment was an interim measure. He was tasked by the Government to get the police administration back on track. He did so and in 1958 he handed control to career police officer, Commissioner Willis Brown who had come up through the ranks.

'Force' goes

The Police Act 1958 was significant in that it dropped the word 'force' and the service has since been known as The New Zealand Police which is said to better reflect its operating practices and philosophy (minimum force - policing by consent).

Women in the job

Women were admitted to the police in 1941 and placed in a 'woman's division,' but it was not until 1973 that they were fully integrated, drew equal pay and served alongside their male colleagues on patrol and in almost every aspect of policing. Today women are included in virtually all areas of speciality including search and rescue squads, the armed offenders squads and as dog handlers and are represented, although not well, in the higher ranks.

Massive demonstration against the Springbok (South African rugby) team which toured and divided New Zealand in 1981 led to a need for rapid change in policing tactics, to be able to cope with large, often violent crowds. Maori activism also generated a need for police to develop Iwi liaison capabilities, to seek more Maori recruits and to document and implement employment and operational policies reflecting a commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi.

The last decade has seen police go through significant organisational and operational changes, all necessary to meet escalating change in the wider community. Government's requirement of all its departments including police, to adopt accrual accounting practices changed the face of the police administration. This along with the requirement to fund new, much more sophisticated computer technology by shedding staff, led to wide-spread disillusionment among police officers. Then followed an unprecedented exodus of staff under the (PERF) Police Employment Rehabilitation Fund (compensation). While recruitment achieves targets, the loss of experienced staff is a serious down-side to the equation.

In 1992 police went through another change which has also significantly impacted on staff. They amalgamated with the Traffic Safety Service which had primary responsibility for, and real expertise in policing the roads. While the merger has been broadly successful, it still has critics amongst former TSS staff and police as well as the public who consider, rightly or wrongly, that the commitment to road safety had diminished. The police administration denies this and is able to produce impressive road safety policing statistics, particularly a dramatically reduced road toll.

Public opinion polls always place police close to the top of organisations in which the public has the most faith and trust. It's current process of change to fewer management staff with more front line officers, supported by the multi-million dollar INCIS computer, is causing morale problems and may also be effecting the police image. However, the organisation is so important in societal terms, it must successfully manage its way through.

The New Zealand Police is now organised into four regions each headed by an assistant commissioner. They control 16 districts each headed by a managers with the rank of superintendent. Each must comply with national policing and direction but has considerable freedom along with the responsibility for maintaining law and order in the district. Each district headquarters has a central station, from which the activities of subsidiary and suburban stations are coordinated.


NOTE: Policing New Zealand is a section of crime.co.nz, it is not authorised or related to the New Zealand Police


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The New Zealand police turned 100 in September 1986

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