NZ Police (Photo: Richard Tindiller/RNZ)
NZ Police (Photo: Richard Tindiller/RNZ)

OPINIONĀteaMarch 5, 2020

Yes, there is racism in our police. Here’s what we can do about it

NZ Police (Photo: Richard Tindiller/RNZ)
NZ Police (Photo: Richard Tindiller/RNZ)

Research released by justice advocacy group JustSpeak shows that racist, structural bias is still a huge problem in New Zealand Police. We have the tools to make things better, writes Laura O’Connell Rapira.

Last week lawyer, children’s rights advocate, and my go-to karaoke friend, Julia Whaipooti, delivered a hard and heartbreaking truth on national television: that right now, Māori women are forced to stay with abusive partners because they don’t want to endure police and government racism.

In Whaipooti’s words, Māori women “would rather not go to the state because they are more scared of that than the fist of their partner.”

It’s a damning indictment of our so-called justice system. And when it’s making headlines the same week that research is released showing Māori women are three times more likely to be killed by a partner than non-Māori, it’s something that all of us, especially people in government, need to take seriously.

The interview came off the back of new research by JustSpeak that confirms yet again what Māori have been saying for generations: New Zealand’s justice system is racist AF.

JustSpeak found that if you’re Pākehā, have no criminal record, and encounter police you are less likely to be charged or sent to court than someone who is Māori. They found that police are 1.8 times more likely to take legal action against Māori than Pākehā, and seven times more likely to charge a Māori person with a crime, even when that person has no police or corrections record either.

If you are Pākehā, or even just perceived as Pākehā, you are more likely to be treated favourably by police than if you look Māori. It’s a frightening prospect when you consider the increased use of armed police in communities with a lot of brown people.

It’s not new or, sadly, very surprising information that there is racism in the police force. Mātua Moana Jackson, Khylee Quince, Tā Kim Workman and many others have been sounding the alarm about this for decades. The police have expressed “reservations” about the new study, yet they themselves have acknowledged that racial bias towards Māori exists in the police. There is also a tonne of evidence that racism festers away in other government agencies too, including our hospitals and schools.

What gets fewer headlines and less attention is what can we actually do about it.

Right now, the police are trialling an app called AWHI (Alternative Ways to Help with Intervention) and, problematic co-opting of reo Māori aside, it has real promise for whānau Māori. AWHI gives individual police officers the ability to refer people to social services on the spot, instead of sending them to court. If someone is struggling because they’ve been kicked out of school, are grappling with drug addiction, have nowhere to live, or are experiencing mental distress then sending them to court will not solve any of that. Helping them to get the actual awhi and support they need, however, will.

What AWHI could also tell police is which officers are making the most of this technology and who they are using it for. For example, the data AWHI gathers could tell us who gets referred to a driver licencing programme when they’re caught driving without a licence and who doesn’t. It could tell us who gets sent to addiction or family violence support services and who gets taken to the police station.

The old saying goes that what gets measured gets managed, so let’s measure individual police officers’ penchant for racist behaviour and manage it accordingly.

If an officer is found to be succumbing to the views of the Bob Joneses of the world then send them to Dr Simone Bull’s (Ngāti Porou) wall walk to learn the racist history of policing and the law through the eyes and experiences of Māori over the last 300 years.

Over the past couple of years, New Zealand’s police have taken some steps to address racism in the force. But until that racial bias is eliminated completely we should not be militarising police by arming them with guns. The risk to brown and black lives is too high.

For the past five years, Matua Moana Jackson has been travelling the country to listen to Māori about their experiences of our government’s  justice, care and protection systems in order to write a sequel to his seminal 1988 report He Whaipaanga Hou. 

In 2016 there was a spike in police gun-related incidents and people started raising the Police shootings at hui. Most of the victims over the years have of course been Māori and so Matua started asking people about whether they would support more regular arming of the Police. Since 2016, Matua Moana has asked 1,823 Māori this question and of them, 1,709 (93%) categorically oppose.

Currently, the powers-that-be are deciding who will be their next police commissioner, the person responsible for the administration of police services around Aotearoa. Will the next commissioner be someone who wants to continue to arm police, increasing the likelihood that even more Māori women will choose abuse over calling 111? Or will they be someone who actually listens to Māori so that we don’t have to read this same research in 10 years time?

My sincere hope, for wāhine Māori everywhere, is that they are the latter.

Laura O’Connell Rapira is the director of ActionStation and is a JustSpeak board member.


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