Trying to keep the noise down

Noise control officer Rex Johnston stands with a campus watch officer in front of a student party...
Noise control officer Rex Johnston stands with a campus watch officer in front of a student party. Photos by Robin Dianoux.
Dunedin noise control officers (left to right) Sean Buchanan, Marty Wright and Rex Johnston...
Dunedin noise control officers (left to right) Sean Buchanan, Marty Wright and Rex Johnston prepare to go out on a seizure job about 1am on a Sunday.
The officers with a confiscated stereo system outside  the Armourguard offices.
The officers with a confiscated stereo system outside the Armourguard offices.
Mr Johnston consults a list of flats that he has visited in the past.
Mr Johnston consults a list of flats that he has visited in the past.

In the past year, Dunedin's noise control team dealt with 3625 complaints and seized almost 200 speakers and stereos. Reporter Carla Green followed after-hours noise control officers around on a Saturday night to see how they function.

Rex Johnston reckons not everyone could do his job.

''They need to be laid-back and relaxed. Anyone who's highly strung, it will never work for them,'' he said.

Soon afterwards, he drove up to an intersection where some young people were running across the street against the light.

He waited, patiently, without honking.

''Students on the road,'' he said, chuckling.

Mr Johnston said that in the 12 years he had worked as an after-hours noise control officer, he had ''basically had everything done to me'' when responding to noise complaints.


''I've been stabbed,'' he said, ''I've been kicked, slapped, urinated on, had faeces thrown on me, tackled, a cigarette stubbed out on my head, just about everything has happened over the years.''

He is a contractor at Armourguard, the security firm that has held the noise control contract with the Dunedin City Council since 2007.

(Mr Johnston also did noise control as an Armourguard contractor before the company temporarily lost the Dunedin City Council contract to Chubb in the late 1990s.)


Night on the town

In Dunedin, the busiest nights for noise control are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

''Thursday tends to be the party night for students,'' he said.

''I think that's based on their student allowances coming through on Wednesday night, Thursday.''

Figures provided to the Otago Daily Times by the DCC show that of the 3625 noise complaints the council received in the past 12 months, 1086 were in North Dunedin.

Compared with approximate noise complaint numbers that Armourguard provided for several other cities, Dunedin as a whole is on the average-to-low end of the spectrum, with about 0.03 noise complaints per capita.

However, north Dunedin taken on its own has far and away the most complaints per capita of any of the cities Armourguard provided statistics for, and has almost five times as many as Dunedin altogether, about 0.14 complaints per capita.

While not all the noise complaints Mr Johnston deals with are about student parties, most of them are.

''You notice when they go away, the [noise complaints] thin out completely, and you get them all over the place,'' he said.

''The majority of them are in north Dunedin - and are students.''


'Laid back and relaxed'

In his most recent seven-year stint as a noise control officer, Mr Johnston has had four different employees.

Marty Wright and Sean Buchanan, who work for him, both started a little over a year ago.

They see the job a bit differently from Mr Johnston. They are younger, much closer to the age of partying students than to Mr Johnston's, and they find it fun, sometimes.

''The angry people [are fun],'' Mr Wright said.

''It makes them more interesting. More fun.''

Plus, he added, ''getting hit on by some of the girls''.

Being noise control officers means Mr Wright and Mr Buchanan have some power over people who are essentially their peers.

But that power is far from absolute, as Mr Johnston's experiences with faeces prove. The most that noise control officers can do without police accompaniment is issue warnings for excessive noise.

In fact, they do not even have the right to enter the premises. When Mr Johnston issues a warning, he lingers at the door and waits for a resident to emerge.

Noise control officers' training reflects that limited power.

''Safety is first - your own safety,'' Mr Wright said.

It also covered mediation and how to defuse tense situations, Mr Johnston said, but the crux of the training was self-protection.

''If we don't feel safe, we don't go in. We call the cops,'' Mr Wright said.


Calling the cops

If, after issuing a warning, the noise control officers receive another complaint at the same address within 72 hours, and the noise level is still judged to be ''excessive'', two noise control officers go to the address with police escorts and seize speakers, stereos, whatever equipment is making the noise.

Last month, the council announced that on top of existing fines for reclaiming equipment seized by the noise control team, officers could apply an additional fine of up to $500.

At the time, DCC environmental health team leader Ros MacGill said the fine was an attempt to force partygoers to take noise control more seriously.

''We are hoping that might be some form of deterrent.''

But Mr Johnston said, in most cases, they would not apply the fine.

''It's only if they're really obnoxious [during the seizure],'' he said.

Dealing with complaints through noise control officers is common throughout New Zealand.

Armourguard regional manager Ben Wooding said the company held several contracts around the country.

But in some other countries, such as the United States and Australia, it is the police who respond to noise complaints.

National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies deputy director Prof Richard Jackson said, in his opinion, police should not be the primary authority dealing with noise complaints.

''If you introduce police to noise control, the danger is that some of those situations would involve people getting arrested and put into the criminal justice system for something they shouldn't have,'' he said.

Arrests still do result from noise control visits in Dunedin, though. Mr Wooding estimates about 12-15 Dunedinites have been arrested on noise control-related visits in the past year.

Mr Johnston said whether or not the police should deal with noise complaints had nothing to do with arrest numbers.

''The police are understaffed as it is,'' he said.

''They certainly wouldn't have time to come to noise complaints.''


A world without noise control

Early on Saturday night, a motel owner, who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons, made a complaint about music across the road.

Motel owners were possibly the most frequent noise complainants, Mr Johnston said, and this particular owner called ''weekly, sometimes several times on a Saturday night''.

The motel owner said he, personally, would never go over and ask people to quieten down.

''When [people] are drunk, it's not worth our hassle,'' he said.

''We put that into the hands of the professional.''

The DCC has programmes to encourage people to resolve noise issues themselves, rather than calling noise control.

''We do encourage people to go across the road and talk,'' Ms MacGill said.

The council would also ''provide intervention if necessary''. On the other hand, she understands why many people prefer not to deal with noise problems themselves.

''When I went out with noise control a couple of months ago, I had a bottle thrown at me,'' she said.

''So I wouldn't necessarily expect [complainants] to go across the road and stop the party.''

Mr Johnston agrees that, ideally, he - as a noise control officer - would become redundant.

But that would probably never happen, he said.

''I find that people do not have respect for themselves or anyone else [when they're drunk]. That's where a lot of the noise issues are coming from. Alcohol. And drugs.''

Minutes later, about 1am, Mr Johnston got a call.

One of the parties they had issued a warning to earlier had started up again - this time, with drums.

He got back into the car, and drove off to make a seizure.

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