Petty crime: no matter if it is a stolen bottle of
milk, a nicked kid's bike or a garden gnome gone walkabout, it
still matters to someone, and it still matters to police in the
South. Hamish McNeilly reports.
An Invercargill child expresses his thanks to police, after
they returned the 7-year-old's bike before it was even
reported stolen. Photo supplied.
This is a story about the price of milk.
And Paul Renouf has had a gutsful.
Not of milk you understand, but of the lactose-loving thief
who swipes the milk the amiable vendor delivers each morning
while most law-abiding citizens lie tucked up in bed.
''I was just getting sick of it, I was losing customers and
it was happening every week.''
As a last resort - and not expecting much - he went to police
to report the case of the missing milk. And the result?Well;
prepare to raise a glass of milk.
''It was incredible what they did ... for a guy who stole
some milk,'' the owner/operator of Dunedin City Milk said.
Hundreds of dollars worth of milk had been stolen in the four
and a-half years he had run the business; but it was a spate
of thefts over a six-week period that left him fuming and out
Even his trick of putting the blue top behind the green top
(turns out ''people are less likely to take the green'')
failed to deter the thief.
About two or three one-litre plastic bottles of milk had been
removed from the rear of several business premises in South
''I have to wear this ... it is my milk.''
And those thefts not only left him out of pocket but also
caused a couple of clients to cancel their orders due to the
''I went to police to see what they would say, and they were
dead serious: ''We will do what we can''.''
Enter Senior Constable Ruth Parsons.
The community constable, who has been based in South Dunedin
for 13 years, interviewed Mr Renouf about the thefts and
provided updates on the case and advice on when to drop off
''I thought they would take a note of it and that would be
the last thing I would hear ... I didn't expect them to go
out and hide in buildings and wait for this guy,'' he said.
Hide? That's right - a stakeout of the milk hot spots begins.
First up, officers monitor the rear of a bank in Rankeilor
St, ''trying to work out where the hell the person was coming
from'', Snr Const Parsons said.
So Snr Const Parsons and her sergeant choose another night,
lying in wait near the rear of a bank in Rankeilor St from
Cold but undeterred, the pair head back to the station only
to be told by Mr Parsons milk had been stolen from another
But early one cold Dunedin morning, a determined Snr Const
Parsons and five other plainclothes officers wait in several
positions for the culprit.
They wait ...and they wait.
''It was very light by 6am and we were going to pull the pin
because we thought no-one in their right mind will nick it
now because there are quite a few people around at that
But as fate would have it, a middle-aged man walks up and
swipes a one litre bottle of milk. Instead of enjoying some
free milk with his porridge, he is promptly arrested by
Sergeant Matt Scoles.
''We caught him with blue top.''
The 45-year-old unemployed man appeared in the Dunedin
District Court last month, charged with theft.
''It felt good to catch him, because everyone was getting a
wee bit frustrated ... and tired when the alarm goes off so
Snr Const Parsons said the stakeouts were her first as a
police officer, and she would do it again.
As she would investigate a crime as small as a bottle of milk
''It is about doing what is right.''
And from Mr Renouf - ''I just hope this puts people off''.
So how petty is petty crime? Southern district commander
Superintendent Bob Burns said petty crime mattered to police
and ''the tolerance level of crime is a lot lower in this
neck of the woods than other parts of the country''.
He cited the ''broken windows theory'' which suggests keeping
a well maintained urban environment will lead to fewer
''Most of our offenders don't start by being the most serious
burglars or assault artists in the world - they start with
apprentice crimes, like theft ex cars. [If] they get
comfortable in that crime type, they will move on to another
He said the message to his officer was small crime was an
important focus as it not only prevented serious crime, it
mattered to the community.
''Losing a garden gnome from an elderly person's front yard
is just as much an invasion of privacy and that person's
rights as someone going into the house.''
Police statistics for 2011-12 show crime in the Southern
District dropped by 11.2%, and ''this is from focusing on the
Supt Burns said petty crime was not a category itself, but
lower level crime such as dishonesty made up around 40% of
all reported crime.
For non-serious offences, Southern District officers
prioritised cases on ''solvability'' but would investigate
anything that was reported, he said.
Supt Burns recalled a time in Nelson when a number of
Auckland staff were down for a tangi.
''They were having a cup of tea and suddenly they hear all
these feet rushing down the stairs, going into the cars, and
sirens going rushing out of the station''.
''They looked around thinking something major had happened.''
Turns out the crime on the mean streets of Nelson was a
tagger being caught in the act.
''That is the difference in the South Island. We respond to
the little stuff ... to the astonishment of some of our
In another case of petty crime, police in Invercargill last
month borrowed a crime-solving technique from the Tom Cruise
film, Minority Report, solving a crime before it even
Police mentioned in their morning meeting about a sign
spotted outside a home saying ''please return my minibike''
posted by Luke, aged 7.
That same day, a local youth offender told his youth mentor a
couple of people brought a bike matching the description to
his house, Invercargill Youth Aid section Senior Constable
Andy Fraser said.
Police recover the tiny bike even before an official
complaint had been made on behalf of the victim.
And the result?
A sign appeared outside young Luke's home saying ''Thanks
Police for finding my minibike!''
From the heartwarming to the plain ridiculous.
Senior Constable Robert Wallace, of Lawrence, recalled ''some
years ago'' officers in an unnamed town where he used to work
were trying to solve a spate of recent burglaries.
Spotting a well-known criminal walking down the street, he
approached him for a word.
''I told him it would be in his best interests to admit to
[the burglaries] because we had fingerprints, and if he goes
to court he probably wouldn't get much of a sentence''.
The criminal did not admit he had anything to do with the
burglaries, which had police stumped.
''But sure enough the next day he went into this police
station, admitted to the burglaries and went to court.''
Snr Const Wallace said ''sometime later'' he bumped into the
man after he was released from prison, and told him admitting
to the burglaries was the right thing to do.
''He said: `Yes, but how did you get my fingerprints? ... I
But police work is not all about solving crime.
Senior Sergeant Brian Benn, of Dunedin, said police enjoyed
one-to-one contact with the public, and ''you always get an
immense amount of satisfaction helping someone that has a
problem, no matter how small''.
One of his favourite memories occurred in his capacity as a
search and rescue co-ordinator.
Several years ago, he was called out on Easter to the Taieri
River area to look for a missing man and some children.
When he found the cold and wet group, he offered them some of
his family's Easter eggs, which he had grabbed on his way out
''Those eggs were really appreciated, I can tell you.''