Govt shifts goalposts on police numbers

A government pledge to add 1800 new officers to police ranks over three years was ambitious in the extreme - now, a cynical U-turn on what that target actually means may cause chaos.

A riddle: when is 1800 extra police over three years not actually 1800 extra police over three years?

The answer, apparently: when the Prime Minister over-commits herself and her coalition colleagues stretch to cover her.

It was clear to most neutral observers that Jacinda Ardern slipped up when, asked by National leader Simon Bridges on Tuesday whether her Government would reach its target of 1800 new police officers this term, she offered a simple “Yes”.

Just that morning, Police Minister Stuart Nash had been far more equivocal in his speech to the Police Association.

“We will deliver 1800 and even if it takes a bit longer, I give you an assurance the money is there…

“My promise to you is that if we don’t reach our numbers in three years, we will keep training new officers until we do reach this target.”

Nash’s caution is understandable. In last year’s Budget, Treasury officials recommended that the extra officers be phased in over five years rather than three, noting: “Implementation over a three-year period is likely to be challenging.”

Yet realism was replaced with unalloyed optimism when he was asked a day later by National's Brett Hudson whether Ardern was right.

Police Minister Stuart Nash swiftly backed up Jacinda Ardern's affirmation that the Government would reach its target of 1800 new police, having just a day earlier been far more equivocal. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“Of course the Prime Minister was correct. We’re on track to deliver 1800 new police next month,” the minister retorted.

Why the sudden positivity about a target than barely 24 hours earlier had seemed in the balance?

Winston Peters offered up some clarity (of sorts) when he backed up Nash and insisted that the Government’s target was solely about new officers, not the net figure once departures were taken into account.

“Sorry guys, you’re journalists - words matter, that’s with precision what we wrote.”

While 1685 recruits have graduated under the Government so far, the number of new police “over and above attrition” is just 892 - a difference of nearly 800 cops.

Peters is technically right, insofar as the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement includes a commitment to “strive towards adding 1800 new police officers over three years”.

The only problem is that it is a distinction the minister tasked with overseeing the increase has not himself made.

Speaking to Parliament’s justice committee in June last year, Nash was precise about the target’s meaning.

“I’ve always been very clear about this - this isn’t 1800 police minus attrition; this is 1800 police as well as attrition,” he told National MP Chris Bishop.

Nash has not been alone in interpreting the coalition pledge that way.

When Police Commissioner Mike Bush outlined where the 1800 extra police would be allocated in August last year, an accompanying table noted that the figure was for “additional police above October 2017 target staffing levels”.

If Winston Peters' coalition commitment has been misinterpreted by ministers, police brass and union representatives, why has he not corrected the record earlier? Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Asked why he had not corrected his Cabinet colleague, or his party’s police spokesman Darroch Ball who in December spoke of “1800 additional police officers”, Peters said: “You’re hearing it from me, that’s gospel.”

As he is fond of saying, words do matter - and if Peters is to be believed now, his own comments in the past have been muddled at best and misleading at worst.

In a post on New Zealand First’s own website marking the Government’s one-year anniversary last October, Peters noted that “as part of our coalition agreement, we set the goal of recruiting 1800 extra police over the next three years”.

Even as recently as last week, a Peters swipe at National leader Simon Bridges included a reference to “recruiting 1800 more frontline police officers to tackle with (sic) the crime rate, which was a campaign promise by New Zealand First”.

Moving away from a net figure to simply counting new recruits is not a trivial matter.

If the same recruitment to attrition ratio was to hold, the Government could “reach” the 1800 target, yet in reality have only 953 extra bobbies on the beat. That would drop the staffing growth across New Zealand from 20 percent to a little over 10 percent.

As Nash and others have been keen to point out, that is more than the 880 additional sworn officers which the National government had pledged to employ by 2021.

That would be fine, had the coalition set itself a more modest target - but to offer up an eye-catching number, only to shift the goalposts and claim victory when it is clear you are going to fall short, is deeply cynical to say the least.

If ministers, police brass and union representatives have been misinterpreting the pledge all this time, why has Peters never put them right?

Given the target of 1800 was created at the behest of New Zealand First, Peters is set to head into next year’s election trumpeting its success, even if the Police Minister doesn’t believe that himself.

The abrupt adjustment is unlikely to sit well with police: Police Association president Chris Cahill left Newsroom in no doubt about his organisation's position.

"We're really clear - it's adding 1800, the adding is key, it's on top of the numbers that were in place when it started."

Police had already been planning for where the officers would be deployed, Cahill said, adding that a change of definition would have a significant effect.

"That would be a minimal increase, given that we're already losing on average over the last 10 years 400 or 500 officers a year...1800 only hits your attrition mark really."

With ministers, police brass and union representatives supposedly misinterpreting the pledge all this time, why has Peters never put them right?

If the New Zealand First leader is wrong, he is highly unlikely to admit that; if he is right, years of police planning may need to be thrown out the window.

Schrödinger's target

Nash has found a novel way to reconcile the two diverging definitions.

There are in fact two targets: the coalition commitment for new officers which Ardern and Peters have spoken about, and his own one for "real growth".

That both targets are for 1800 police within three years seems to be an amazing, and confusing, coincidence.

In reality, it is an explanation primarily focused on saving face, and Nash can hardly be blamed given it is Ardern and Peters who have really undermined him.

You could argue that this fracas matters little, given the minister is still committing to giving police the numbers they expected.

But to create a 'Schrödinger's target' that can both be met and not met come election day is farcical - and voters deserve better.

* This article has been updated with additional comment from Police Minister Stuart Nash.

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