Haunting experiences have given cop-turned-politician Chester Borrows the empathy needed to lead justice system reform. Laura Walters spent a day with Borrows in South Taranaki, ahead of the release of Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora’s final report.
When Chester Borrows was a sole-charge cop in the South Taranaki town of Pātea, a local man brought his young son into the police station.
Borrows knew the family well, for all the reasons a local cop knows a family well.
The boy had been nicking things. The dad wanted Borrows’ help to stop his son from turning out like him.
‘What do you want me to do?’
The man asked Borrows to throw his kid in the police cell for a couple of hours – scare him straight.
So he put the boy in the clink, then Borrows, who has a self-declared flare for the dramatic, went to his house next door and made up a plate of lunch for the kid: an old bone from a roast, meant for the dog; cold, gelatinous gravy; a hunk of stale bread; and a strong, sweet cup of tea.
He slid the enamel plate into the cell and left. When he came back, the plate was clean.
‘Chester, do you have any more?’
In the coming years, Borrows would see the boy biking the streets at all hours – anything to avoid going home.
He went on to steal cars. And, as a young man, killed himself in a police cell.
Borrows doesn’t think he was ever a hard bastard as a cop. Sure he has some regrets about the way he spoke to people when he was starting out – but that experience hit home.
“While you might have the best of intentions, unthinkingly, you end up having this effect.”
When the boy needed someone to take notice, those around him confirmed his life was shit, and was going to be shit, Borrows says as he drives towards the South Taranaki coast, his voice wavering slightly.
“It haunts me.”
Borrows is passionate when he talks about choice, the drivers of crime, and victimisation. None of it’s black and white.
“People want their victims to come in certain boxes… White and pure, and attacked by strangers and through no fault of their own.”
And it’s easier to see offenders as the authors of their own misfortune. “It’s politically expedient because then we don’t have to blame ourselves.”
Research from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor shows this isn’t the case, with 77 percent of people in the criminal justice system themselves victims of violence.
Of those in the system, 53 percent of women and 15 percent of men have experienced sexual abuse, and 53 percent of women and 40 percent of men have a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD. In terms of prisoners, 91 percent of those in prison suffer from mental illness or addiction issues.
And Māori are more likely to be victims of crime, and experience victimisation at a rate of 37 percent, compared to the national average of 29 percent, according to the latest research from the Ministry of Justice.
Māori also make up 51 percent of the prison population, but 15 percent of the general population. And those with a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be victims, as well as offenders.
Almost half (47 percent) of all crime is experienced by just 4 percent of adults.
“I have a very strong sense that justice exists in a civilised society for everybody, regardless of your status. And justice can never be bought.”
Those in the justice system are failed by other social sector agencies first, Borrows says.
If the country fails people economically, in housing, health and education they are more likely to appear in those statistics.
They might make dumb decisions, but before that other people have made dumb decisions on their behalf.
The justice sector, and social services brand people, “and we all buy the brand”.
This sense of justice is what drives Borrows’ work – as a cop, as a defence lawyer, as an MP, and now leading the Government’s justice reform advisory panel – Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora.
“I have a very strong sense that justice exists in a civilised society for everybody, regardless of your status. And justice can never be bought.
“Unfortunately, a lot of our justice system at the moment is bought. You get much better outcomes if you can afford it… That’s not the country we want to live in.”
After going into the police force at 17, he worked in Auckland, Wellington, back home in Nelson, then in the Hutt Valley.
A plan to go farming with his cousin didn’t work out, so he went back to police. Borrows was given the choice of Taumaranui or Pātea.
Next to Pātea on the map were the words: ‘beach resort’. The decision was made.
Borrows arrived in Pātea in December 1985, with his wife Ella.
At the time, about 80 percent of the town was on a benefit, businesses were closing, and there was a lot of crime – more than the previous local cops had reported.
The freezing works, which employed more than 70 percent of the town’s workers, closed in 1982 with a devastating impact on the town.
Borrows says he witnessed how the decisions by central Government – specifically Rogernomics – directly affected the community.
Among what he describes as ‘abject poverty’, the town’s beacon of hope was the Pātea Māori Club, and the national success of Poi E. That’s still the case today.
Until this point, the town had been cycling through a new police officer every couple of years. Borrows also planned to leave the district after two years. That was more than 30 years ago.
“They longed for someone to be committed to the town,” he says, over surprisingly good coffee at Pātea’s Red Rock cafe, a few hundred metres from the town’s iconic Aotea waka.
“What you see and what you hear is Chester Borrows. He doesn’t bullshit around; he gives it to you straight.”
Borrows and his family became deeply involved in community life and were warmly embraced.
Pātea was where he learnt about the history of the region and the land wars, the relationships, and tikanga Māori. He does not whakapapa to Māori but now has a strong connection with Ngāti Ruanui.
This is the knowledge he applies when exploring what justice means to different people, and the impact of the colonial system on Māori.
While sitting in the Hawera courthouse, where he spent countless hours as a defence lawyer, Borrows talks about utu.
Not revenge, as utu is often misunderstood to mean, but reciprocity. There was a justice system before Pākehā came to Aotearoa, and in redesigning a failing justice system, there are lessons to be learnt from the past, he says.
Borrows has an abundance of colourful stories from his time policing in South Taranaki. A lot of what would not be acceptable today, but it worked back then.
His former boss Alex Matheson says Borrows is passionate about people, diligent and confident in his work.
Borrows’ reputation as a cop preceded him, and when he arrived, Matheson welcomed him with open arms.
Officers who live in the communities they police face unique challenges. Part of the job is arresting someone one day, and running into them at the supermarket or outside the school gate, the next.
Matheson says not pulling the wool over people’s eyes helps with those relationships.
“What you see and what you hear is Chester Borrows. He doesn’t bullshit around; he gives it to you straight.”
At 43 Borrows went to law school at Victoria University in Wellington, after his application for another policing job was unsuccessful.
“I had three kids and a wife and a mortgage, and I was shitting myself.’
He had struggled at school and graduated bottom of his class at police college, but his life experience helped him through his law degree.
He went on to become a lawyer in Hawera – defending people he knew well from his time as a police officer. And in 1999, he made his first run for Parliament.
Borrows had grown up Labour, and was staunch until he moved to Pātea. In an interview with E-Tangata earlier in the year, Borrows said it felt like National and Labour had swapped sides.
At that time, he made a personal pledge to change his colours, and a couple of weeks later, National campaigners came door-knocking.
Borrows handed over a couple of bucks and joined the party. It took him two more elections before he could bring himself to vote National.
After two failed runs at the Whanganui seat, Borrows made it into Parliament in 2005.
The party’s success that year came largely off the back of Don Brash’s Orewa speech, he says with a look of distaste.
“But you tend to be pragmatic about these things.”
Borrows was recognised in the party as a leftie, but he was empowered to do his work, and his voice was heard within caucus.
As far as politicians go, his career was light on scandal, but in 2016 Borrows was charged with careless driving causing injury after his car came into contact with a protestor blocking a driveway, as he drove Paula Bennett from a business breakfast in Whanganui. Borrows was found not guilty.
As they drove away from the 2014 election, Borrows and Ella had decided that was the last one. By 2017, Borrows was looking at 60, and he was keen to move on, but young enough to come back into the fold, if the party needed his help.
“He sort of cares about people across the board; he’s not selective. He helps people in need, regardless of who they are.”
At the height of his Parliamentary career, Borrows was Minister of Courts, outside Cabinet, and marks his push to have DNA collected from everybody arrested as a proud win. This policy has saved lives, he says.
But he regrets not taking a stronger stand on the issues he didn’t believe in, including three strikes legislation, removing prisoners’ right to vote, and supporting a bill establishing local Māori wards and constituencies.
Three-time Labour opponent – now Whanganui mayor – Hamish McDouall says Borrows was a hard-worker, well-respected and affable.
There were very few cross words between the two, and more often there was a joke, or a witty jibe.
“I didn’t always agree with him, but he certainly wore out his shoe leather.”
When it came to justice, the two did have similar views.
In 2008, when National rolled out a “medieval approach” to justice and criminalisation, Borrows had to campaign on policies against his own personal beliefs, McDouall says.
Borrows’ lived experience meant he was well-respected on both sides of the House, and also makes him the right person to lead the current conversation on justice reform.
“People that might wear blue pajamas or red pajamas, should always be utilised for the betterment of the country.”
The test will be whether Borrows and his group can find a direction, which is palatable across New Zealand’s political spectrum.
After Parliament, Borrows applied for a job as a Children’s Commissioner in Canada.
His application was unsuccessful but he remained open to work in areas close to his heart, like justice and youth.
In 2018, he was appointed to lead the Government’s justice reform work. Borrows thinks he may well achieve more in this space in 12 months than he did in 12 years in Parliament.
But in order to get real change, MPs need to listen to the growing call to take the politics out of justice. Something he knows is easier said than done.
Borrows has long talked about being ‘smart on crime’, rather than ‘tough on crime’.
“The only way we’ll get that is if politicians stop pressing that red button every election.”
Te Uepū’s final report is now at the printers.
It will go to Justice Minister Andrew Little by the end of the month, and follows Te Uepū’s aptly named first report, He Waka Roimata – vessel of tears.
He Waka Roimata articulated what has been seen and felt my generations of Kiwis: a broken criminal justice system, which fails many of the country’s most vulnerable.
For those who have been listening, Te Uepū’s final report and recommendations are unlikely to come as a surprise.
It’ll likely contain further calls for treating drugs as a health and addiction issue – similar to the way alcohol is treated, and making way for more restorative justice practices.
Then it’s up to the Government to decide which recommendations to accept, and how to implement them.
Throughout this process Borrows will be there, leading the charge for change.
Retirement from politics hasn’t meant a lazy life for Borrows.
Aside from the justice work, he also conducts services at local churches, and has been a funeral and wedding celebrant for 20 years.
He spends a lot of time outdoors, with his dog Red, gathering inspiration for his artwork.
One of his favourite spots is Ohawe Beach. Borrows has painted it from most angles, and as it turns out, his landscapes are quite popular.
In South Taranaki, Borrows is someone to everyone. He’s the guy who knows a guy.
He’s the one people go to when they have a kid in trouble, or a relationship falling to bits. He’s the one they call when they need a mobile chiller for a function, or a grader for the driveway ahead of the Governor-General’s visit.
Walking into a cafe next to the Hawera courthouse at lunchtime Borrows smiles at those he knows.
He spots South Taranaki mayor Ross Dunlop, and settles into the seat next to him. The two start sharing local tales.
Over the phone, Dunlop describes Borrows as community minded, approachable, naturally friendly, and armed with a social concsience and an ability to listen.
“He sort of cares about people across the board; he’s not selective. He helps people in need, regardless of who they are,” Dunlop says.
It’s clear Borrows has empathy in spades, but he’s also effective.
“You can be a nice person but not achieve much, but he’s achieving stuff and he’s also very much keeping his feet on the ground, and connected with the community he lives in,” Dunlop says –
before taking on a serious tone: “That’s all the good stuff. Do you want the dirt on him now?”
Then he laughs, and says goodbye.