Leaked documents suggest the collapse of the police emergency communications system is imminent, and as HAMISH CARNACHAN reports, public lives may already be at risk…
Picture this: A police officer gets an urgent dispatch to a violent domestic involving a woman and her enraged partner. He speeds to the address, lights flashing, siren wailing, and arrives on the scene – a run-down house slap-bang in the middle of a nasty neighbourhood. Onlookers start to crowd around the patrol car, some start taunting the officer with obscenities, and unrestrained rogue dogs start barking menacingly. Even above the commotion outside vehicle the officer can hear the battle raging inside the house. He picks up the radio to call for back-up only to met with a staccato retort from a flustered call centre operator. “Standby units.” Seconds turn to minutes and there’s still no reply from the operator. What does he do? Does he risk getting injured going in alone, or does he wait until the dispatcher is free to send help?
It may be hard to believe, but this is a dilemma that many of New Zealand’s frontline police officers are forced to face on a daily basis. And while the police have had a pretty tough time of time it lately, what, with questionable time delays in response to burglary callouts and then a high-speed pursuit ending in civilian casualties, this investigation suggests things are whole lot worse.
Backed up by leaked documents and testimony from within the ranks of the New Zealand Police Force, Investigate details a – frankly – shocking series of allegations which raise grave concerns about the efficiency of the current police communications system, and highlights the futile battle frontline officers are fighting to get the tools they need to do their job properly – keep the public safe.
The internal police reports, sent to Investigate by an officer working in the Bay of Plenty Police District, spell out a clear warning that the situation is so bad it is only a matter of time before lives are lost as a result. While blame is pointed squarely at low staffing levels in the Northern Communications centre, which covers the upper half of the North Island, and the resulting overloaded system, we discover the issue is by no means isolated to this region alone.
The reports we reveal here are not one-off inci-dents either. A few phone calls to random police stations around the country opened up a Pandora’s box of dissatisfaction, criticism, and widespread misgivings about the current communications system. And alarmingly, given the sober nature of the declarations, this is an issue that has plagued the police for years because, argue some critics, the bureaucrats who hold police purse strings are more interested in accountability than officer safety. Hung-over from the excessive budget blowouts of the 1990s, concerns are being raised that the culture of police spending has gone from one extreme to the other.
Although it happened more than four years ago, fresh in the mind of most officers is the fate of Constable Murray Stretch, who in 1999 was brutally bludgeoned to death in Mangakino whilst trying to apprehend a burglar on his own. As these reports reveal, there is a growing fear that a similar tragedy is imminent.
In one of our leaked internal reports, filed by a Bay of Plenty Senior Sergeant to one of his superiors, he complains that poor staffing levels are leaving officers unable to attend callouts and isolated in the field – a situation police are becoming increasingly wary of given the violent nature of today’s crime and criminals.
He writes, “This…is submitted to bring to your attention the dangerous situation of linking channels. Channels were linked through the period when I was working until 2300 hrs. The one female operator was running Whakatane, Tauranga, Rotorua and Taupo areas. We were fortunate that it was a quiet night yet [at one stage] she was running burglars in Tauranga and Rotorua, then a robbery in Taupo.
“Prior to these jobs occurring I came across youths fighting on the street. Attempts to get through to inform comms [communications] what was happening was met with ‘standby units’. I couldn’t even get through to Opotiki base to let the member there know what I was doing. I was met with a choice of sitting in the car for 10 minutes, watching these guys smacking each other around whilst waiting to get through, or going to sort it out. I did the latter and as anticipated was able to deal with it myself. My concern is what if the outcome was different?”
The Bay of Plenty officer goes on to state in his report that it was the third consecutive day in which police lines of communication had been clogged for “hours on end”.
“As I type this,” notes the Senior Sergeant, “the operator has told everyone to standby, that she has six jobs coming through. She is talking at 100 miles an hour to keep up and co-ordinate cordons. Staff could not do [personal and vehicle background checks, or inspect the occupants] etc due to the jobs coming in.
“My concerns are:
· The safety of staff on the street that cannot get on the air due to heavy airtime traffic (even on a relatively quiet night).
· The welfare of the operator. This report is in no way critical of her. She was doing an excellent job in the circumstances and I wonder how long she could keep it up without burning out.
· Criticism has been levelled at staff not …letting comms know where they are. Having spoken to my staff and then experiencing it myself whilst working swing shifts, I can see they can’t get through. It is difficult on a normal night but impossible when linked.
“Whilst I appreciate how difficult it is when we are short staffed, we cannot allow this situation to continue with the linking occurring on an ever frequent basis. One day it may cost the life of a colleague.”
Another report leaked to Investigate, from the same area of operations, raises concerns about “an identifiable hazard under the Health and Safety legislation”, and concludes with near identical concerns about officer safety.
“I wish to bring to your attention the fact that Whakatane/Tauranga are experiencing more and more occasions of our radio channels being linked with Rotorua/Tauranga, to the detriment of our work capabilities and safety.
“It is only a matter of when, not if, an officer is injured because he cannot get on the radio for help or backup.”
Again, this officer raises the issue that police staff are failing to call in background checks because the “problem of [long communication delays] has become that common”.
And perhaps most surprising, as the report reveals, is the fact that the communications centre is failing to inform frontline officers of future problems. On this occasion, it failed to arrange any advance measures to tackle low staffing levels despite knowing about pending shortages five weeks in advance.
“They also advised me that the channels were having to be linked between the hours of 0300-0700hrs for seven days… Around 0800hrs in the morning is the time when we experience the drunks coming out of the nightclubs and violence erupts quickly and from nowhere. Very unnerving when working by yourself and you cannot call on the radio because all the channels are linked.”
These findings come in the wake of another complaint, from Palmerston North police, detailing similar concerns about the Central Communications centre, situated in Wellington and covering the lower half of the North Island. The unnamed officer was recently quoted in the Herald saying, the situation was putting lives at risk and “ultimately it’s the public getting stuffed by it and they don’t even know. The reason cops are standing off a bit is because we’re not getting any backup. They can’t get on the radio”.
Phone calls to police stations in the South Island reveal similar discontent with the Southern Communications centre based in Christchurch. One disgruntled South Island officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the Christchurch call centre is invariably clogged as staff simultaneously juggle police communications, triple one emergency calls and dispatches.
“We only have one channel for the greater part of the top of the South Island. When we have a major incident we want to be able to split off to another channel so we can resolve it, not have all this interference. I can’t do that from my end – it’s got to be done through Southern comms [responsible for the entire South Island]. That’s part of the problem. They’ve regionalised the communications whereas once we dealt with it ourselves.”
It was eight years ago that police communications were centralised into Southern, Central and Northern command units, re-placing regional networks in which each of the 12 police districts ran their own operations room. The process took place in conjunction with the failed $100 million Incis project to upgrade the police force’s mainframe Wanganui computer in the 1990s. This centralised Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) system was supposed to be linked into Wanganui when Incis came on line.
As we now know, Incis was a monumental failure that never eventuated. Its only legacy is the piecemeal national communications set-up now in place – established from the outset to be heavily dependant on the technology Incis was supposed provide. As Police Associations president Greg O’Connor explains, when the plug was pulled on Incis in the late 1990s, the rationale for CAD disappeared.
“While Incis was being built a national comms centre was also being built. The problem was, it was a technology led programme from the start. The Deputy Commissioner [of Police] said to me at the time that the rest of the country should have the same service as Auckland. That was a prophetic statement at the time because Auckland had lousy service.”
According to O’Connor, another issue with the CAD system adopted by the New Zealand Police was that it had originally been developed for Melbourne – solely for a metropolitan area where everyone has a street address. This, he says, created “massive problems when we grabbed it and tried to make it work for the whole country” because of computer recognition difficulties with rural locations.
Additionally, O’Connor says the system has always been under-resourced and during the planning process “no one really defined the role of the new comms centres – there’s confusion around what their task is supposed to be”.
That point is backed up by a police study, released in 2001, on the ‘Strategic Evaluation of the New Zealand Police Position Concerning the Use of Force When Responding to Potentially Violent Situations’ – in short the ‘Shuey Report’, named after one of the authors, the Assistant Commissioner of the Victorian Police.
One of the recommendations highlights that “urgent decisions be made and formally announced to districts concerning the command role (or otherwise) of the three communications centres during the course of operational deployments”.
The review also found that “the three communication centres have been in place for over four years and the vexing question of their incident command/control role has yet to be resolved… Many anecdotal incidents were also raised by those interviewed, sufficient to reinforce this concern”.
And yet, despite O’Connor’s certainty that “police managers are well aware of the problems”, two years on it seems there still hasn’t been any action taken to address these apparent deficiencies.
“Most of the district commanders I’m sure would go back to the old system if they could,” he says. “The biggest complaints I get are from provincial towns where one dispatcher is expected to cover three areas. Nobody that works in a city that used to have their own comms centre believes they’ve now got it any better.”
As far as O’Connor is concerned, the lack of redress in this area can be directly linked back to the budget blow-out over the Incis project – a monster that regularly returns to haunt the police with “crippling accountability”.
“The police have got a poor reputation with their investment in technology and the New Zealand Police will pay for Incis for a long time. I think police spending under the current regime is a lot tighter today. Under this commissioner, police spending has now got credibility back.”
But, while that might be heart warming for the bean counters in Wellington, frontline officers have been left out in the cold, still worried for their lives and the lives of the public. So does O’Connor accept their concerns? The answer is a predictable “yes” but he also warns “that with the treasury people having so much influence in running the police” it is going to be detrimental to the force as a whole.
As the leaked reports show, it is already having a detrimental affect on frontline officers’ field capabilities. Yet, according to most police who spoke to Investigate, a solution to the situation of overloaded communications centres would not require a substantial investment. They suggest that providing frontline officers with a secure radio frequency, which can’t be decoded by criminals monitoring police channels as is the case at present, and mobile data terminals, to quickly run background checks, would certainly ease pressure on the three central communications networks.
Unfortunately, despite a $4billion surplus, Budget 2004 was somewhat parsimonious with the latest round of funding for police, and the communications issue has once again been overlooked for a spot on the Government’s list of top ‘priorities’ for the sector.
In a recent speech at the opening of a new police station on Great Barrier Island the Police Minister, George Hawkins, proclaimed that while there are many ways the government can spend money on police “the most satisfying is investing in police property”.
“A solid and committed police capital works programme ensures staff enjoy comfortable, satisfying conditions in which to carry out the work they do. I am pleased to say that the current Government is investing around $12million per year on the refurbishment and rebuilding of stations nationwide.”
It’s statements like these that have some critics fuming. They say suggesting officers’ comfort is a higher priority than safety shows that the Minister is about as in touch with policing issues as he was with housing when the leaky building crisis surfaced – or sank.
But regardless of what his detractors imply, it appears Hawkins has no idea of the communications problems police are facing. He informs Investigate that there are “no known issues that require attention” and that “police are not aware of any major issues involving the communications centres”.
“Police are confident in the knowledge that the Comcens [communication centres], which are a mission critical function of policing, are working efficiently, effectively and producing the required outcomes,” he says. “Police have deployed sufficient resources to these areas to achieve the required outcomes.”
Although Hawkins was the MP who initiated a select committee inquiry into INCIS in 1999, these latest assurances might seem a little flimsy given there is little sign that apparently persistent problems are being rectified. Four years ago he openly criticised police under the National Party for failing to pull the plug on the doomed project.
He was quoted in the Herald saying, “I think by 1997 the police had realised this was a nightmare, but instead of doing something they fluffed up their pillows and rolled over.”
In a more recent finger-pointing exercise he notes that police infrastructure and morale has “been gutted under the previous National-led government”. And, in the same March 2003 briefing paper, the Minister again goes on to express confidence that under Labour the “police have the resources necessary to focus on crime prevention and resolution throughout New Zealand”.
Clearly he isn’t getting his information from the same sources. Back on the communications issue he tells Investigate that the centres have “ongoing programmes to improve business and technology process and practices”.
He also asserts that “performance targets are being met and customer surveys both internal and external have not highlighted any major issues”, which seems to fly in the face of the Shuey report findings.
And yet this examination isn’t the first time the national communications network has been called into question. Sadly, overloaded systems have already been blamed for deaths in the past, and many questions still remain unanswered.
In 2001 a 12-year-old boy whose father lay dying after a diving accident near Whangarei had his emergency call diverted to Wellington’s Central Communications Centre because the northern call centre was overloaded. The diver’s death prompted concern that re-routing calls was causing life-threatening delays in access to emergency services.
Investigate’s latest revelations show the persistence of a serious problem that has continually failed to be addressed. Perhaps, too, they may shed some light on the recent search and rescue operation off the coast of Oamaru. Five men were left stranded in the water for hours, even after activating a rescue beacon when their boat was swamped. Two were subsequently rescued, one body was retrieved and the other two remain missing.
While the episode is currently under investigation by the Search and Rescue Council, reviews of internal processes by the National Rescue Coordination Centre and police are also being examined. Communication discrepancies were initially blamed for the delay, but the report, which is expected to be complete in six weeks, should shed more light on such claims.
Meanwhile, O’Connor, like the officers who filed the leaked reports, makes a clear point that the systematic failures in no way reflect the level of commitment that communications centre staff put into an “incredibly demanding job”. He says they are doing the “absolute best they can” given the limitations of the tool they’re expected to work with.
“It’s when things aren’t working that we talk about them. Most of the time it does work but Murphy’s Law says it will always fail at the worst possible time.”
So does that mean lives are potentially being put at risk?
“Yes, but lives are always at risk when police are out there dealing with criminals. It’s an inherently dangerous occupation. Policing is about risk minimisation though and you do that by using the best technology available so that every officer has contact with their home base. Anything that reduces that communication with home base increases the risk.”