On the beat, Neil Cameron

A Policeman’s Paradise? Policing a Stable Society, 1918-1945
Graeme Dunstall
Dunmore Press in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, $49.95,
ISBN 0864693567


This (large) volume is the fourth in the “official” history of the New Zealand Police. With its publication the series now extends to a total of five books, 2113 pages of text and 381 pages of footnotes and bibliography.

And that only brings us up to 1945. The four volumes produced so far are probably unique among police-sponsored general histories in their attention to the minutiae of local police life, and their concern to locate the development and everyday practice of policing within a coherent theoretical frame. Richard Hill’s first volume in the series, Policing the Colonial Frontier: The Theory and Practice of Coercive Social and Racial Control in New Zealand, set the pattern, and Graeme Dunstall’s work on this volume continues it. As Hill’s title itself suggests, the theoretical perspective that informs the series is, even today, rather more consistent with that of an “alternative” history than an “official” one. As one somewhat bemused reviewer commented of that volume, it must be the only police-sponsored history to be written from an essentially Marxist perspective. While this perspective may have faded a bit in this volume, the basic concern to place the development of New Zealand policing within a strong and coherent theoretical framework remains. Indeed it is this that makes the stuff of everyday policing, reported in such detail in all these volumes, so rewarding.

Compared to the drama of the “colonial frontier” period chronicled by Hill in the first two volumes, the years 1918-1945 obviously present something of a challenge for the historian. The period up to the end of the Great War saw the police in transition from a colonial force to a modern Metropolitan-style service – the “iron hand in a velvet glove” of Hill’s third volume in the series. By 1918 the pattern that was to last until the 1950s was essentially set. Located at the centre of civil government, police were increasingly able to rely on the massively consensual imagery pioneered and marketed by the Metropolitan Police. Strategies were now to be oriented towards prevention and information–gathering rather than coercion and suppression. The imperatives of policing had become the imperatives of what Dunstall describes as “a small-town society with its large core of stable families, its variety of institutions for social interaction, its strong pressures for conformity, and its sustained inculcation of desired norms”. The police officer was henceforth to be a “peace” officer and the police force was to be the police “service”.


Dunstall approaches the challenge of forging interesting history from essentially uneventful times by focusing on two rather different questions. Both are suggested in the title of the volume, although in terms of their significance they seem to be stated there in rather the wrong order. The question posed by the first part of the title is, it seems to me, essentially a secondary one – “Was this period, characterised as it was by stability and domestic peace, really a paradise for policemen?” Not surprisingly, Dunstall concludes that, with some reservations, the period can indeed be seen as a paradise – both for policemen and probably even, after 1941, for policewomen.

The second, and more interesting question, encapsulated in the subtitle Policing a Stable Society, promises to unpack the mechanics and rhetoric of policing a “small-town” society, and perhaps suggest what this might tell us about the nature of the police enterprise in general. Much of the fascination of police history lies in the ways in which the police, often in conjunction with politicians and other significant stakeholders, constantly reinvent themselves in order to manage the basic ambiguities and contradictions of the job. Police strategies, for example, must address the contradiction between what policing is ultimately about – the capacity to exercise an essentially unfettered coercive power in the interests of society – and the values of the society in which police must operate and attain legitimacy. This society purports to abhor coercion and constantly seeks to hedge its use around with a stringent array of checks and balances. Dunstall paints a picture of police successfully addressing this and other ambiguities through a set of strategies and practices that completed the transformation, foreshadowed by Hill in earlier volumes, from the overtly coercive stance of the colonial period to the more “benign” or “hegemonic” styles of more modern times.

As Dunstall rightly emphasises, a central plank in this strategy in the inter-war years was the “myth of the local constable”. The local constable was no longer simply one among a number of different manifestations of policing; he became the essence of all policing. In mediating the demands of the wider consensus at the local level, the constable did not just preserve order; he came to embody it. Police work became suffused by “‘tact’ and ‘fairness’, ‘firmness’ but restraint in using authority, a readiness to advise rather than prosecute, (and) ‘summary justice’ for youths when needed”. Indeed the Reverend Ormond Burton perfectly caught both the flavour of this mode of policing and its effect on the policed in his description of his arrest for obstruction in Courtney Place on the day the Second World War was declared:

The police were very courteous and from their point of view exceedingly long suffering. They argued and persuaded and tried to get me to stop speaking. They were so decent that I felt rather a pig at not complying.


“Tact”, “firmness” and the reputation for sturdy common sense were not, of course, enough in themselves to convince the Reverend Burton’s more delinquency-prone brethren that they would be pigs not to comply with police demands. From at least the 1890s, such strategies aimed at downplaying coercion and inducing consent at the street level had been accompanied by a clear political thrust to position the police so that they could be convincingly presented as independent of government direction and control. This thrust reached its rhetorical culmination in Commissioner O’Donovan’s celebrated “Address to the New Zealand Police Force” in 1920 – a document that continued to form part of the mythology of the New Zealand Police until the 1950s. O’Donovan’s vision of the police as “taking our stand unmoved on ‘No man’s land’“ and “compelling the conflicting parties to retire to the constitutional trenches” is an enduring one: it establishes a constitutional legitimacy for the police that is reinforced by the rhetorical neutrality of the law that they serve. It is certainly a much more compelling and sophisticated rhetoric than the “meat in the sandwich” imagery of senior police officers in more recent times.


As with the myth of the local constable, the image of a politically autonomous police force, subject only to the law and to the need to retain some nebulous community “consent”, really came of age in the inter-war years. In spite of the Police Regulations which, until 1950, clearly made the Commissioner’s control of the Force “subject to the directions of the Minister”, overt political direction of the Police had almost vanished by 1945 – both in operational matters and, more significantly, on matters of law enforcement policy. By the end of the period, as Dunstall says, Ministers of Police had typically become “the Department’s advocate, defending it from criticism and putting forward the Commissioner’s views on matters of legislation and administration”. This pattern, although not quite so clear today, was certainly to last until well into the latter years of the century.

The inter-war years created and sustained the myth of New Zealand as a small-town paradise and of “good” policing as essentially personal, discreet and paternalistic. New technologies and strategies, geographical and administrative centralisation and the growth of social and political conflict in the post-war years soon challenged all this but the roots laid down in the “paradise” years proved remarkably robust. When, in 1975, a senior police officer sought to explain New Zealand policing to me by thrusting a tattered copy of the “Black Book” containing Commissioner O’Donovan’s Address into my hand, his actions still made a good deal of sense.

A Policeman’s Paradise?, then, ultimately provides a good picture of the political, social and administrative realities of policing in an important period of our history. In doing so, it provides insights into modern strategies and practices, and into much of the rhetoric that still surrounds front-line policing, police administration and relations between police and government. It would have been useful, however, if Dunstall had used his final chapter to bring this material together a bit more and to relate it to the theoretical perspectives outlined in his introduction. Instead he chooses to direct his final chapter essentially to the “Was it paradise?” question, which, as I suggested earlier, is interesting but ultimately doesn’t seem to be quite the point of the period. Nevertheless, this volume is obviously a worthy successor to Hill’s earlier work and will no doubt provide an excellent springboard for the post-war years.


Neil Cameron teaches in the Law School at Victoria University of Wellington.


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