Justice still on her mind

Former senior police officer Tania Baron is now focused on justice-sector lobbying and a new...
Former senior police officer Tania Baron is now focused on justice-sector lobbying and a new career in real estate. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Tania Baron still occasionally uses "we" when talking about the police.

"I’ve got to get out of that habit," she says.

You cannot blame her; the former Inspector and Southern District road policing manager was a cop for more than 20 years.

But Ms Baron’s steep career ascent came to an abrupt halt in March when she left the job after a mediated exit.

Former senior police officer Tania Baron is now focused on justice-sector lobbying and a new...
Former senior police officer Tania Baron is now focused on justice-sector lobbying and a new career in real estate. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Lawyers were called in; it was all a bit scandalous.

It emerged the senior officer’s marriage had broken down and she had been involved in a relationship with someone less than half her age, though it was unconfirmed whether that had anything to do with her departure.

Police top brass remain tight-lipped and Ms Baron — speaking for the first time since the episode — cannot say much.

"It’s not a short story. It’s really tricky. I’m bound by confidentiality," she says.

It is achingly clear she wants to say more.

"An outspoken female leader wasn’t necessarily a good fit for the Southern District police management," Ms Baron says. It is as far as she will go.

So would things have eventuated the way they did had the roles been flipped and she was a man?

"No. Not at all," she says.

"I’d love to be able to tell you so much more."

On the way to coffee with the Otago Daily Times she saw police cars, lights and sirens blaring, speeding through town to an armed offenders squad callout.

Things like that spark momentary reminiscent pangs for her old life.

"Those guys and girls who go to work every day and put their own lives on the line to help other people, it’s absolutely amazing," Ms Baron says.

"Ideally, in a perfect world, I’d still be a member of the police. I loved my job. I loved what police stands for but for various reasons it didn’t work out."

When asked how she will look back on her career there is a long pause.

A very long pause.

"That’s a really difficult one. I’m sort of torn."

Ms Baron is a wholehearted sort — she did not just do the job, and spout the lines about community safety — she lived it.

It is probably what saw her meteoric rise through the ranks.

But the promotions coupled with her candid nature did not always sit well with the desk-bound old boys’ club.

She recalls following a senior colleague into the office she shared with two male staffers a few years ago.

Evidently, he did not know Ms Baron was behind him.

"Where’s the office slushy today?" the superior announced.

She warned him to think carefully about his next words.

He left, red-faced, and there was no explanation, no apology.

"I felt heartbroken actually," Ms Baron says.

"Until that period of my career, I’d never experienced any discrimination."

And she is still unsure what "slushy" referred to.

While uncomfortable with the attitudes of the upper echelon, Ms Baron was, and still is, a believer in the "prevention-first" model of policing.

"Once upon a time you would identify an offence, identify an offender and you’d lock them up," she says.

"Under prevention first it was really looking at what factors led to the offending in the first place. That really resonated with me."

That proactive approach to stopping crime before it starts led to her speaking with former Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman Scott Guthrie.

On hearing Ms Baron’s story, he sent her a supportive message on Facebook, "not expecting a reply of course, because I didn’t know her from a bar of soap".

The pair spoke and realised their views on offender rehabilitation and reintegration meshed.

They had other things in common too, says Mr Guthrie, who has garnered headlines over his business woes.

"We’ve got our history, we’ve got our past and we know some of the media are going to have a dig," he says.

Ms Baron says she was initially cautious about Mr Guthrie’s approach.

"I did get lots of weirdos contacting me," she says.

Once she had stressed she was not a disgruntled ex-cop looking to snipe at her former employer from the sidelines, she was won over by Mr Guthrie’s "genuine passion".

Ms Baron says their mission was simple: to make New Zealand a safer place.

Together they co-founded Transforming Justice Foundation (TJF).

Locking people up works to protect the community while the offender sits in prison, but that person will inevitably be released.

And what then?

The average person before being jailed for the first time, she says, has 46 convictions.

"What’s happening between one and 46?"

TJF’s ethos focuses on  rehabilitation of offenders to avoid victimisation all together.

"Garth McVicar [Sensible Sentencing Trust founder] can rant and rave all he wants about us going in to bat for prisoners, but I’m ...  not," Mr Guthrie says.

The simple notion is: fewer crimes equals fewer victims.

Free of the handcuffs of her old uniform, Ms Baron takes aim at departments she believes are failing.

Oranga Tamariki is at the top of the list.

She says nearly every child who dies in a domestic setting seems to be known to them, and yet so many catastrophes have not been averted.

"The change from CYF is just a name," she says.

Ms Baron has already rattled cages in Parliament, too.

When NZ First MP Darroch Ball recently put in a members’ Bill to return the drink-driving limit to its pre-2014 level, she hit back online.

She slammed his attitude as "dangerous" and suggested his efforts would be better directed at something more innovative such as introducing random drug testing of drivers.

The MP invited her to Parliament to talk it over and Ms Baron might just get the chance in a couple of weeks.

She and Mr Guthrie will head to the capital for the Criminal Justice Summit, where they hope to have the ear of Police Minister Stuart Nash and Justice Minister Andrew Little.

A seat at the table is a win for the burgeoning organisation, and they are also celebrating a recent online pat on the back from former Primer Minister Helen Clark.

"Good to see formation of new Transforming Justice Foundation. #NZ need to focus urgently on more appropriate justice & penal policies which do not lead to the excessive incarceration it has today," she wrote on Twitter.

"It’s about the biggest endorsement we could ever have," Mr Guthrie says.

Lobbying the Government for justice-system change, however, does not pay the bills, so Ms Baron has returned to the bottom of the ladder.

She has found a new passion in real estate.

Three polytech papers, a few months of training, and she will be selling houses.

You would not bet against her being a success again.

Meanwhile, the rumour mill grinds on.

When asked about her personal life, Ms Baron simply says: "I’m a mum of two beautiful children, making the most of life."

rob.kidd@odt.co.nz

Add a Comment