Crime in the City: Our long, violent hangover in search of a cure

Back when being drunk in public was a crime, Gary Gotlieb would turn up to work and see 30 or 40 people nursing hangovers in the courthouse. He’d line everyone up.

Those who agreed they were drunk would go one side to plead guilty. All those who denied the charges would go to the other side.

“That was taking so much time,” the veteran defence lawyer says. “The police were locking up so many people, they were getting pissed off.”

Gotlieb said previous generations learnt the hard way that draconian laws and prohibition didn’t work.

New Zealand’s liquor laws have for decades staggered like a drunk, the mood for more severe or more relaxed rules shifting. But booze-fuelled crime is one of Auckland’s most intractable problems.

Data consistently indicates about 40 per cent of all violent interpersonal offences and roughly a third of family violence crimes involve alcohol, when the offender, victim or both are drinking.

Aside from the countless assaults, sexual attacks and acts of vandalism linked to alcohol, the men who became faces of late-night violence are now etched in the city’s memory.

Tarun Asthana was killed in 2013. Jerico Telea was killed in 2019. MMA fighter Fau Vake was killed on May 16 this year. All were young men, all were killed in central Auckland, and although the case involving Vake is still before the courts, alcohol is known to have been a factor in Asthana and Telea’s final moments.

Police this week said New Zealanders were increasingly likely to report assaults. Police data for the crime type known as “acts intended to cause injury” indicates these offences have surged way beyond pre-pandemic levels in Counties Manukau and Auckland City.

In Counties, the number of these recorded crimes has more than doubled since 2015, and people in their 20s are by far the most likely to be victims.

In response to problem drinking, lawmakers have sometimes aimed to make us more like supposedly refined, disciplined drinkers of Southern Europe, or foster the sort of dining districts foreign tourists might find palatable.

Other times, legal overhauls were aimed at dispensing with the most permissive licence rules, clawing back a few hours of the day, such as 4am to 8am, from alcohol sales.

Nationwide, Ministry of Health data shows little progress has been made in reducing hazardous drinking.

The number of people identified as hazardous drinkers has risen slightly, from 20.8 per cent five years ago to 20.9 per cent last year. And stats for heavy episodic drinking, meaning people who drink heavily on a weekly or monthly basis, have largely stagnated over the same period.

The stats might paint a depressing picture, but some campaigners say we can learn from history.

‘The criminal system really just stops any rehabilitation’

Gotlieb says he was opposed to the infamous 6 o’clock swill, the ritualised one-hour evening drinking binge.

The swill ended in 1967. On Monday, October 9 that year – the first day of new 10 o’clock closing laws – some publicans fretted about having customers after 6pm, or God forbid, after 7pm.

Some barmen spat the dummy, threatening to leave at 7pm if new pay conditions including a 15c per hour night shift allowance weren’t met. Nobody in the Herald front-page story voiced explicit concerns about crime or health risks, though there was some vaguely-articulated controversy about allowing women in bars.

The city’s police district assistant commissioner, FO Scott, made it clear cops would watch closely to ensure the initial stages of 10 o’clock closing were adequately policed.

In the decades since, police have had to make similar pledges, as closing times got later and bids to tackle booze-related harm encountered powerful business interests and binge-drinking rituals which seem an indelible part of the New Zealand psyche.

The offence of being drunk in a public place was abolished in 1981, but Gotlieb and his mates in the courts kept seeing the harm alcohol did, and the state’s attempts to punish people for boozed-up transgressions.

“There are some people who are alcoholics and need help but they are drinking because that’s their whole life,” he says. “The criminal system really just stops any rehabilitation.”

He wonders why the country doesn’t invest more in detox centres and specialist drug and alcohol courts. The dearth of detox centres has real-life consequences, as Sentry Taitoko’s family found out. After a bad trip on LSD and other drugs, 21-year-old Taitoko died in a suicide watch cell at Counties Manukau police station in 2014.

Detective Senior Sergeant Ross Ellwood later told a coronial inquest that if a detox centre had been available, the level of care for Taitoko would have greatly differed.

“Police cells are intended for housing prisoners, not intended as a health complex,” he said.

Changes have occurred at Counties Manukau since Taitoko’s death, and that station’s custody unit is now regarded as one of the country’s best and safest. But overall, the broader criminal justice system must consider different ways of meeting the needs of long-term addicts, Gotlieb says.

“We’ve got a lot of people out there who are damaged goods, for all sorts of reasons.”

When a defendant facing punishment like Shaynee Manuel, 24, is offered a place in a rehab course, it can seem to those in court like a potentially lifesaving but very rare intervention.

“It seems that this is the first time you’ve been thrown a lifeline. Grab hold of it,” Justice Simon Moore told Manuel when she was sentenced in February this year for a violent home invasion. The judge added: “Make the most of this one-off opportunity.”

But why are these placements so rare? Gotlieb believes the answer is simple.

“Unfortunately, that costs money and that gets to: How much money is the state prepared to spend to rehabilitate?”

‘One of the few pleasures in life’

In the relative absence of rehab and detox centres, a patchwork of policies and bylaws are aimed at stemming the most destructive effects of alcohol abuse.

Reforms in 1989 allowed for fewer liquor licence types. These types were easier to get but were but also easier to lose if conditions were breached.

Despite the drunks throwing punches at 3am and other tragic cases hogging headlines, wine writer Michael Cooper says New Zealand has been successful in fostering a more civilised drinking culture.

The author and Listener columnist says his father drank too much and his mother was a teetotaller, and they personified the polarised attitudes to alcohol that emerged way back in early colonial days.

“You had so many single and, no doubt, lonely young men. One of the few pleasures in life was alcohol, but then you also had this strong Christian influence,” Cooper says.

It gets more complex – because although some early Christian visitors were fervently opposed to booze, the missionary Samuel Marsden is often credited for planting New Zealand’s first vineyard.

Cooper does not believe young people binge-drink more now than when he was at university. And he’s correct to point out that many people in New Zealand drink responsibly. Despite the attention hazardous drinkers receive, Ministry of Health data shows most adults drink alcohol and most of them are not regarded as hazardous drinkers.

Cooper says his children and their peers in their late 20s and early 30s seem more conservative than his peers were about drinking and drug-taking.

Since most drinkers aren’t alcoholics or violent thugs, it’s tempting to ask how much interference in their rights New Zealand is prepared to tolerate. But a campaigner for alcohol reform says history shows us changes can reduce alcohol-fuelled crime, with minimal erosion of liberties.

‘Wide-awake drunks’

If the 1989 reforms helped create a more refined or complex drinking culture, another round of changes eight years ago sought to curb the loosest restrictions.

A 2013 curb on maximum trading hours for alcohol was credited for reductions in alcohol-related assault, with fewer assault victims turning up to hospital or coming to police attention.

Dr Nicki Jackson of Alcohol Healthwatch says liquor availability, later opening hours for pubs and bars, and low alcohol prices drive much alcohol-fuelled violence.

“When New Zealand ended-24 hour trading hours, we saw reductions in alcohol-related assaults. Following the restrictions, weekend hospitalised assaults declined by 11 per cent.” Among people aged 15-29, there was an even greater decline in these assaults, Jackson says, citing a University of Otago study published last year.

But she says recent proposals to cut off-licence closing times to 9pm have encountered stiff resistance, such as legal appeals from retailers who profit from late-night alcohol sales.

“Councils and communities around the country simply don’t have the resources to fight these appeals to have their voices heard,” she says, adding that ratepayers foot the bill for liquor policy appeals that can drag on for years.

Jackson says retailers also provide opportunities for people to load up cheaply before heading into Auckland City.

“You can buy alcohol for anywhere between 60-70c a standard drink. They’re coming in with high blood-alcohol content already, continuing to top up late at night.”

Anyone seeing the glassy-eyed denizens of Karangahape Rd or other nightlife hotspots in the last moments before dawn might wonder what those people are on. Jackson says those staying out latest are not typical drinkers, and they’re not necessarily on drugs, or just lingering around waiting to sober up.

“They’re our heavier, more frequent and younger drinkers. You’ve got these wide-awake drunks who are drinking very late, until 4 in the morning.”

She says for many, the only thing other than alcohol being consumed is an energy drink or two.

Jackson says at least one-third of assaults in Auckland involve alcohol, and the Covid-19 pandemic has further complicated drinking patterns.

She says 22 per cent of Māori were drinking more in level 4 lockdown than before, and that number had not subsided by July – two months after the lockdown ended.

The same month, a Health Promotion Agency study found 22 per cent of people reported drinking less than before lockdown, and only 14 per cent reported drinking more. But the average number of standard drinks all respondents consumed on a weekly basis was unchanged. Jackson says this suggests the roughly one in seven people drinking more were probably drinking much more than in pre-lockdown days.

Liquor stores proliferating

The complexity behind alcohol-fuelled crime means no one solution will dramatically reduce that harm, Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick says.

“It demonstrates that this is perhaps not something that can be solved primarily through legislative change. Legislative change can help but it’s also a case that this is a cultural problem.”

She says severing ties between sports sponsorship and alcohol companies is crucial to combat what she calls the normalisation and glamourisation of alcohol abuse.

And in another arena, she says the law must change to stop giant retailers ensnaring communities in lengthy, expensive legal appeals when councils object to an expansion of liquor licences.

She says Auckland Council has been in the courts for five years and spent more than a million dollars trying to enforce its own policy.

The Green Party MP says community cohesion and resources often determine how well the will of the people stands up to the will of alcohol business interests.

She says Waiheke, with a relatively well-connected and well-resourced community, successfully stopped a new liquor shop opening up. But in South Auckland, she says liquor stores proliferate. “We are consistently seeing them blossom.”

Apart from sports advertising and local liquor licence battles, Swarbrick says a confluence of other factors entrench the heavy-drinking culture, and many people keep their alcohol abuse problems secret.

Swarbrick says for some students away from home, alcohol is the only legal drug available, and she worries for the wellbeing of students who combine binge-drinking campus culture with using booze to self-medicate in times of anxiety.

She agrees with Jackson that 4am closings rather than earlier closings increase social harms, and reckons many drinkers reflecting on their own behaviour would admit the hours after midnight on the drink are not their finest hours.

One solution, Swarbrick says, is to empower communities.

“Local communities should be able to make decisions about where liquor outlets go. And that is supposedly the point of the local alcohol policies.”

‘Socialised to violence’

Multiple factors influence binge-drinking culture and its impacts on crime. But it’s unlikely someone throwing a punch at 3am is processing sociological concepts about why he and his peers get blind drunk and do stupid things likely to land themselves and others in deep trouble.

Tragic one-punch deaths have sparked calls for a coward punch law akin to some introduced in Australia. But attempts to introduce tougher penalties for these assaults causing death have floundered, as when National MP Matt King’s bill was voted down last year.

“In my own work with men, I would argue that a one-punch law isn’t going to work, as well-intentioned as it is,” says Richie Hardcore, who campaigns against male violence. “Moreover, we are often socialised to violence as men.

“Brains simply don’t stop and think when they are angry and drunk.”

He says we’d be better off working on long-term cultural change to make street violence uncool and unacceptable, in a similar way to how cigarette smoking has been de-glamourised.

In the meantime, we’ll keep seeing the drunks nursing legal hangovers in the local court – although they’re likely to be facing charges more serious than just being drunk in public.

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