Wednesday, 23 Jun 2021

Packed room for public meeting on crime and harassment in Wellington

Banning patched gang members, increasing the brightness of lights, and bringing back volunteer monitoring of CCTV cameras have been mooted as solutions to improve safety in Wellington.

National list MP Nicola Willis hosted a public meeting tonight to discuss the issue, which has been in the spotlight recently.

There has been an increased reporting of sexual abuse and a string of serious assaults, including a fatal assault outside Te Papa earlier this year.

In March, hundreds of people took to Courtenay Place to rally against sexual violence and call for safer streets in the capital.

Police data shows the number of sexual assaults in Wellington has increased by nearly 50 per cent in the past five years.

The number of acts intended to cause injury, including common and serious assault, has also grown by 35 per cent over the same period.

Meanwhile, police records also show the number of members and prospective gang members in the Wellington region has almost doubled since 2016.

Willis herself has said publicly she doesn’t feel safe walking in the central city and issued a challenge to her colleagues.

“I encourage any Minister to walk down Courtenay Place, to walk through Manners Mall on any day of the week, at any time, and tell me they feel safe and if they don’t feel safe, they need to be doing more to ensure others can.”

A man who lives next to emergency housing accommodation told the meeting rival gangs were living on the same premises.

He suggested putting an end to that would help ease violent tensions.

He said a type of “urban ghetto” has been created by bringing so many people into the city to live in emergency accommodation.

“People are so alienated from community.”

Wellington hospitality operator Matt McLaughlin said he has never seen so many gang brawls, anti-social behaviour, violence and sexual harassment in his experience in the industry.

“It’s not the Wellington that I know, it’s not the Wellington that I was brought up in.”

But he said work was underway to turn that around, including high-vis uniforms for all security guards to wear.

“Just to be that presence and make people feel safer.”

McLaughlin said he has called on police to better enforce central city liquor bans, for patched gang members to be banned, and asked the council to double the street lamp brightness on Courtenay Place.

He said bar owners are working on a blanket trespassing of problematic patrons and a code of conduct for everyone to sign up to.

One hospitality worker told the meeting bouncers have taken up the role of enforcement officers.

She noted they have no powers to arrest anyone and were putting themselves at risk to help keep patrons and staff safe.

“As a hospitality worker I turn to our bouncers to walk me to my car when I’m finished [with] my shift.”

Kahungunu Whānau Services executive Ali Hamlin-Paenga said it saddened her that emergency housing was being connected with gang violence.

“Because behind all of that there are families.”

She said the work of Kahungunu Whānau Services, a Māori social housing provider, flew under the radar because they had mahi to do.

“Māori providers have the ability to do things that a lot of other people can’t just because we are Māori.”

She challenged Wellington Mayor Andy Foster to give them a seat at the table to work together on city safety issues. He responded saying he looked forward to working with her.

Inner City Wellington chairman Stephen King said more people were choosing to live in the central city.

The CBD is the largest residential suburb with a population of about 17,500 people.

But King said the social infrastructure was not being provided along with such a rapid increase of people.

Annabel Young told the meeting it was “an act of breathtaking stupidity” that a group of 40 volunteers monitoring council CCTV footage has been disestablished.

Wellington City Council made the move as part of an effort to centralise all its CCTV functions to its offices on The Terrace.

It has previously made assurances staff are continuing to monitor all 53 cameras in the network, which police have access to at all times.

Foster committed to a meeting with volunteers to give them the opportunity to address council officials and ask questions.

A first year student at Victoria University said “shock waves” were sent through those living in university halls of residence when a student was allegedly kidnapped.

Last month three people were arrested following an alleged kidnapping, burglary and assault at a Wellington halls of residence.

The student, who was not involved in the incident, said students coming to Wellington needed to be protected.

“I didn’t feel safe in my own hall,” he said.

Foster said progress was being made on addressing safety issues.

“We all need to be in this together and we can fix it and we will fix it.”

Bar owners, retailers, police and local councils have joined forces by committing to a “social contract”, which asks everyone to take collective action to address safety issues in Wellington’s CBD.

One of the council’s commitments to this contract is a welcoming space for partners, including New Zealand Police, MSD, CCDHB, and Metlink, to provide support to the community and have a visible presence in and around Te Aro Park.

This week that new space, called Te Wāhi Āwhina, was blessed.

Willis said she called the public meeting after fielding concerns about a lack of action on crime, harassment and disorder in Wellington’s public places.

Business owners and local residents have reported it’s the worst they have ever seen it, she said.

“The meeting is an opportunity for members of the public to have their voices heard, to tell us their stories about what they see happening in their central city, to put the questions they want Government to answer and other agencies present in the city, and to offer constructive solutions.”

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