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Church and community join police blitz against drugs

By Paul Titus

When Rev Leatuao Larry Tupa’i Samuel took over as the minister of St Luke’s Methodist Church and Peoples Centre in Northcote he literally had to fight to gain control of his church property. Criminals had taken over the church grounds to sell and use drugs, and Larry had some serious confrontations before they stopped.

The effort to improve the life in the community didn’t end there, however. Last year Larry joined community groups, the police, and government agencies in a campaign to make central Northcote a safer and more pleasant place to live.

Larry says his theology comes out of the Methodist tradition of concern for social justice.

“At the heart of Wesleyan theology is the need to go to where the people are at, just as Jesus did. The church has to be a part of society and engaged with the community, because the church is not outside of its community.

“When I arrived, St Luke’s was not a community facing church. It had been through several splits over bi-culturalism, gay and lesbian issues, and other church decisions, and it was like a ghost town. The first year we worked hard on a mission statement which says we want to be a church that is relevant, exciting, active and visionary (REAV) and we explored theologies around ‘what’ sort of church we wanted to be in Northcote.”

A chance to become involved in the community presented itself in June 2005 when Larry was invited to the second meeting of the Safer Northcote Project. The newly formed group needed a chair person and when someone suggested Larry he took up the challenge.

Acting area commander of the North Shore City police Gary Davey says the Safer Northcote Project was launched when residents approached the police because they were sick of the crime and violence in their community.

“The police are moving toward a ‘community reassurance model’ where we try to put operations in place to address people’s concerns whether it is boy racers, crime, or intimidation,” Gary says.

“In Northcote gangs, crime families, and professional criminals were selling drugs and committing burglaries with the associated violence. People in the community felt unsafe, and the situation was bad for the police too. Police patrols were getting sworn at and bottles thrown at them. There were actually some no-go areas where patrols wouldn’t enter because it was too dangerous.

“Our response was a zero tolerance policy on all offences. We put more high profile patrols into the area and used teams trained in street policing. The CIB (Criminal Investigation Branch) did covert investigations and we targeted recidivist offenders to drive the drug dealers out.”

The Safer Northcote Project made use of carrots as well as sticks. The police requested the North Shore City Council help by improving the quality of the environment. Because central Northcote has a large concentration of state houses, Housing New Zealand got involved as well.

North Shore City senior planner Ross Moffatt says Mayor George Wood took a personal interest in the project and got the city council involved. The council fixed pavements, installed new street lighting, repainted basketball and netball courts, put new toys into playgrounds, tidied reserves, and covered up tagging.

Housing NZ staff inspected properties, removed junk and illegal structures, and painted fences. It has also designated Northcote one of its six ‘community renewal’ projects.

Community renewal projects are intended to be collaborative efforts by residents, agencies, and local councils to refurbish the buildings and the physical surroundings in state housing neighbourhoods. They also seek to boost employment and training and to reduce crime.

After the end of the six month blitz by the police and social agencies, a celebration was held at the Cadness Loop Reserve in central Northcote to mark the transformation of the community.

Gary says while crime has not been eliminated completely, it is down dramatically and there has been no corresponding increase in neighbouring cities. Family violence has also dropped.

Gary and Ross both praise Larry’s role in the Safer Northcote Project and his tenacity.

“Larry became the facilitator of the project. He ran the meetings, developed action plans, and kept the rest of us honest. If we said we would do something he made sure we delivered. His view of is role in the community goes well beyond the confines of the church,” Ross says.

The lessons learned and networks established in the Safer Northcote Project will continue to be of value. North Shore City, Housing NZ, and community groups have established the Northcote Central Project, a long term initiative to improve housing, infrastructure, and transportation.

Larry has shifted his attention to creating a coalition of Pacific Island communities in North Shore so they can better make their ideas known to government agencies. He plans to launch the North Shore Pasefika Forum in early December in conjunction with the city’s first ever Pasefika Festival.