Out and about with the Police

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Reducing harm . . . Southland Alcohol Harm Prevention Office acting sergeant Simon Ballantyne (left) and prevention coordinator sergeant Scott McConachie at the Invercargill station.

Data from the Ministry of Health annual survey shows the percentage of New Zealanders drinking in a harmful way has risen in the past year.

Reporter Abbey Palmer spent a night with the Southland Police Alcohol Harm Prevention Team to find out how they were managing the numbers.

IT is 8pm on a Friday night and prevention co-ordinator sergeant Scott McConachie is giving me the run-down on what the police ride-along will entail.

We are inside the Invercargill station, a place I have visited many-a-time but this time is different – I am finally past the all-concealing door.

“If we do end up arresting someone and they are a spitter, we have a spit hood we can use,” Scott says.

Admittedly, I had come in to the shift hoping to see a bit of action. Being spat at however, was not on my list of expectations.

At the same time, I did not want the watered down version of the role – so I tell myself it is time to suck it up and prepare for the spit.

His partner, Simon Ballantyne, who has recently taken over the role of acting sergeant for the Southland Alcohol Harm Prevention Office, joins us in the meeting room.

“If you hear them say Sammy over the radio, that’s just my nickname,” he tells me.

Does this mean I can call him Sammy? I mean, surely, now I am on the other side of the door and all.

I pull myself out of this internal conversation and refocus on the health and safety guidelines.

Stay far away from any bodily fluids, keep within three metres of Scott and Sam, and if they both happen to be rendered unconscious, remember what to say in to the radio when I am alone and defenceless.

Great, easy. Just another day at the office I tell myself.

I am disappointed there are no donuts in the tea room. But there is cake and coffee, which will have to suffice. After a wee breather, we head out towards Gore.

It’s a decent 40-minute drive, so on the way we talk about Scott and Sam’s role.

From the beginning of our conversation, one thing has been made undeniably clear – they both genuinely care about their community. Even more so, about reducing the harm alcohol is causing.

But they do not do it alone, they also work with a range of external partners including Invercargill City Council, Southland District Council, Southland District Health Board, Well South, Healthy Attitudes Towards Alcohol (HATA), and the Invercargill Licensing Trust.

Sam tells me about how him and Scott did their New Zealand Police training together 17 years ago.

Despite working in different areas and departments over the years, they now conduct “prevention weekends” as a team, he says.

From checking on licensed establishments to breath-testing operations, everything they do is around preventing the harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption, Sam says.

“It’s not about telling people they can’t drink. I want people to go out, have a few drinks and some fun, but it’s about making sure they’re doing it safely. We don’t want people rolling out of the pub.

“How we drink is about the choices we make. If we have a healthy attitude towards how we’re drinking then we are doing it responsibly.”

He tells me about how alcohol is a consistent factor in the call-outs police get, not only through disorder-type offending, but on the roads, in family harm incidents, as well as mental health and youth-related calls for service.

Before I have even had a chance to get off-record intel, we approach the booming metropolis that is Gore.

A car rally is taking place – an ideal setting to be alcohol breath-testing I assume.

We set-up in the heart of town with several other officers, including Southland area commander inspector Mike Bowman.

To be fair, I am no help at all. If anything, I am in the way. But my eyes are opened to the reality of how many people are careless enough to drink and drive.

I am disheartened to see two people, out of so few, come through the checkpoint significantly rolled.

After a decent stint observing in Gore, we wrap things up and make our way over to Winton.

Scott tells me we are just going to check the local pub is running smoothly and safely.

Despite a few wobblers and shoulder-leaners, everyone is pretty-well under control when we arrive. Sam checks in with the bar staff and keeps an eye on some of the patrons.

So far so good, I have not been spat at.

The next stop is going to be the last of the shift – back to Invercargill to check out the bars I would possibly otherwise be at if I was not here.

Upon arrival, I stand with Scott in the corner of one of the more popular spots and observe the behaviour.

“There’s nothing more sobering than seeing people that have been drinking dance, when you’re sober,” Scott says. He is not wrong.

A few people raise their hands as if to surrender when they see us, a joke Scott and Sam know all too well by the sounds of it.

Aside from some shocking dance moves, I still have not witnessed any spitters and 3am has rolled around without me even noticing it.

Sam and Scott call it a night and we make our way out of the bar. The bouncer sees me lingering behind the two like a lost puppy.

“The old ride-along eh!” He says.

I laugh awkwardly and tell myself I am important. Sad the shift is over, but glad I am no longer a tagalong.

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