The mood shifts quickly on a typical Saturday night. Sometime between 3.57am and 4.06am tension seeps into the air on Karangahape Road.

It is no coincidence that this occurs around “tip-out time” when the bars spill drunken patrons outside for police to handle. This typical Saturday-night saw seven police officers keeping vigil on K Road protecting people from alcohol-fuelled harm.

“There’s a guy with a knife down there fighting,” a passerby says. Sergeant Anne McMillan, a staunch mother-hen-meets-drill-instructor type uses her 12 years of experience to assess the call rapidly. “Everyone go,” she says.

My experience following police as an independent observer on the Saturday night shift was part of my ongoing research into alcohol-related harm at the Helen Clark Foundation. The plan was to see the effect of alcohol policy first-hand on responders. Who could have known that this was the last Saturday night before lockdown?

Police stand at the bottom of a steep cliff of alcohol-related harm. Research suggests this cliff is not just missing a handrail, but it has been moulded into a metaphorical slide through decades of alcohol law reform inaction.

Key policies proposed by Sir Geoffrey Palmer in a wide-ranging report ten years ago included measures to de-normalise binge drinking culture by reducing availability through higher taxation, accessibility through reduced opening hours, and visibility through advertising reforms. None of these proposals were passed into law. Minister Kris Faafoi has promised a review, but progress has been slow.

Availability is a big problem on the Saturday night shift.

“Alcohol is available until about 4am each night, its cheap from the bottle-Os that sell singles, and there are some establishments which consistently break the rules,” McMillan said.

In Auckland central, bottle shops do not close until 11pm with most bars closing around 4am. Market view data obtained for my research shows a remarkable number of transactions seem to happen right around closing time.

About 10,000 transactions are recorded each year as occurring between 11pm and midnight – meaning people are buying right up to the minute before closing and possibly after that time has passed.

Non-compliance was on display this night.

One bar had just a packet of noodles and a frozen pie in their entire kitchen despite requiring sufficient food to feed the number of patrons inside. The bar staff were ordered to purchase takeaways.

Another bar was found to have served a very intoxicated person alcohol. The woman had fallen over and vomited as soon as she walked outside.

As the night progresses the squad radio acts as a macabre narrator to alcohol harm from situation reports.

A woman on the ground was being stood over by a group of males. Someone was being dragged by their hair down the street. A large gathering of males appeared to be getting violent. It drones on all night.

To curb the problem police attempt to cut out pre-loading and binge drinking in car parks. McMillan greets a sergeant stationed outside a central city Wilson’s carpark. “If we don’t babysit this situation,” her fellow sergeant says. “It will get out of hand. We need to have officers here.”

On that last typical night, the worst of the violence is kept at bay thanks to the efforts of officers. Around 5am the streets are starting to clear and it looks like officers will get home on time.

“On paper, our shift runs until 7am but it’s usually closer to 8am or 9am,” McMillan said.

This changed with another, all-too-familiar call on the radio. “Hit in head. Offender in custody. Offending male aggressive so taser had to be deployed.” The squad moves to assist and finds a man being treated for a head wound by a St John Paramedic. He appears to have been randomly attacked.

The offender also needs treatment. There is time for reflection as evidence is gathered.

The human face of our national drinking problem has been on full display tonight.

People who profit. People who suffer. People who turn violent. People who give up their night to protect others. What you cannot see are the people that make the regulations and laws.

As the officers begin the process of writing up the scene and collecting evidence the first rays of sunshine start to emerge.

It lights up a scene littered with cans of RTD bourbon and cokes. An officer kicks at one as they wait for instructions and shrugs.

“Alcohol,” he says. “Just typical.”

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