Nasty month of abuse for council staff

December was a bad month for Dunedin City Council staff and contractors, who endured a sharp increase in abuse and harassment from the public.

The council reported 22 instances of abusive behaviour that month, with 12 incidents of verbal abuse, seven incidents of threatening behaviour, and three incidents of harassment.

The next highest number of incidents occurred in May last year, when seven incidents were reported.

Council chief executive Sandy Graham said the council took any incident of inappropriate behaviour towards its staff extremely seriously.

The vast majority of people council staff interacted with were kind and respectful, and the number of negative incidents was extremely small in comparison, she said.

Figures released to the Otago Daily Times under the Official Information Act show a surge in reported incidents of abusive behaviour.

Over the past five years there were 168 occurrences of abusive behaviour, comprising of 59 instances of verbal abuse, 18 instances of threatening behaviour, 74 instances of harassment and 17 assaults.

Five of the assaults were directed towards council contractors, and 12 towards council employees.

The statistics show a steady rise in instances of abusive behaviour each year since 2017, with the exception of 2020 when there was a lengthy Covid-19 lockdown.

Ms Graham asked people to remember council staff were working hard to do their best for the Dunedin community during a pandemic.

The council kept a register of health and safety incidents and provided training and support for all staff to help manage such incidents and meet health and safety laws, she said.

Otago Regional Council records only went back to 2020.

From January 2020 to October 2021, it recorded 26 incidents or near misses, 22 of involving verbal aggression towards staff.

The other four events included a protest where "attendees became disruptive and were removed by security" in July 2020, an incident of property damage by an aggressive member of the public in December of that year, and an abusive message left on a regional council vehicle in February 2021.

Another incident involving a physical assault and an aggressive customer was recorded in September of last year.

Regional council chief executive Sarah Gardner said that regardless of whether events involving abusive behaviour escalated to physical confrontation, the incidents were unpleasant and potentially harmful.

The council had "zero tolerance" for abusive behaviour directed towards staff, she said.

Measures had been put in place to minimise issues, including training in de-escalation techniques and duress alarm systems.

Staff were advised to contact police if there was an immediate threat to their safety.

She said the events register was introduced to better capture trends and improve oversight of incidents and while the number of incident reports had increased from 2020 to 2021, that was in part due to more proactive reporting.

Behaviour leading to aggression could be caused by many issues, and was not necessarily related to the work of the council, Mrs Gardner said.



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