After 31 years on air, the American police television show Cops was finally cancelled on Wednesday. Is it time for New Zealand to do the same to Police Ten 7?
After 32 seasons, Cops is over. And good riddance. It has been a long time since the controversial US show was on New Zealand television scenes, but you only need to see a single episode to know what it’s about: police aggression, toxic masculinity disguised as “service”, and the removal of the dignity of people facing some of the worst moments of their lives.
Cops episodes were half an hour of humanity at its worst: police harassing and abusing sex workers, slamming down doors over weed, and laughing as they film topless women who are drunk or high. Children cowering in corners as officers scream at them, all while the song ‘Bad Boys’ plays. Each episode unironically starts with the message “Cops is filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”
A 2004 study found that the show perpetuated racist stereotyping and profiling. The “suspects” were overwhelmingly black, and they were mostly shown being involved in violent crimes. The police officers featured were overwhelmingly white, and the disproportionately few white offenders were likely to be involved in non-violent crimes.
Another study found that “statistical correlations between actual crime rates and types … indicated that the Cops episodes (on average) sharply skewed the numbers, racially, making African-American and Hispanic men appear far more responsible for violent crime than they actually are in the US population at large. At the same time, white males were shown on Cops as a far less culpable group than they actually are, statistically.”
Over its 31 years on air, Cops inspired many spin-offs including Cops Reloaded (seriously). New Zealand has its own version: Police Ten 7.
The cancellation of Cops in the face of a worldwide reckoning on racism is to be welcomed. But what about Police Ten 7? The show has been on New Zealand screens since 2002. Is it still acceptable in 2020?
One of the key differences between Cops and Police Ten 7 is that the New Zealand show asks viewers for help in solving crimes. Anyone watching is encouraged to call the Police Ten 7 hotline. According to production house Screentime, “calls to the [Police Ten 7] hotline, emails to case officers and Facebook messages have led directly to hundreds of arrests and helped solve over a thousand crimes”. The show has won two TV Guide awards for popular television.
But do folks still believe it’s acceptable to build reality television around vulnerable communities? And are we just providing a public relations platform to police in New Zealand without considering issues of race, policing and injustice that are largely unaddressed by the show?
Unlike Cops, there have been no published studies on representations of race in Police Ten 7, but we do know how Māori are represented in the wider justice system. Despite these statistics on Māori rates of arrests, police minister Stuart Nash has denied systemic racism exists in the New Zealand police force. Police commissioners – current and former – have used the more comfortable term “unconscious bias”. But dress it up in whatever language you like, it’s still racism.
Let’s look at the statistics. One in every 142 Māori is in prison. Māori make up over 50% of the prison population despite being 15% of the population.
- Six times more likely to be handcuffed than Pākehā
- Eleven times more likely to have pepper spray used on them compared to Pākehā
- Six times more likely to be batoned comapared to Pākehā
- Nine times more likely to have dogs set on them compared to Pākehā
- Ten times more likely to be tasered than Pākehā
- Nine times more likely to have firearms drawn against them by police compared to Pākehā
- Almost eight times more likely than Pākehā to be the victims of police violence
Despite the admission of bias against Māori in 2015 by police commissioner Mike Bush, not a lot has changed in these statistics. At the time Bush said: “Our data, which we collected right from the start, showed that there was a disparity in the way we applied some of our discretion.” Police said in 2017 they’ve achieved a 35% decrease in Māori youth prosecutions since 2012 under the Whanau Ora based Turning of the Tide policy. But that’s just one policy and doesn’t relate to adult prosecutions.
How police in New Zealand treat Māori and Pacific Island children has been highlighted before. A study in 1993 found that Māori and Pacific Island children were 2.9 times more likely than Pākehā children to come to the attention of the police.
That was New Zealand in 1993. How much has really changed since?
As Police Ten 7 wheels out season after season, think about the fact that in the past decade two-thirds of all victims of fatal police shootings have been Māori or Pasifika. With such appalling statistics should we be celebrating the New Zealand Police and wrapping it all up in an “always blow on the pie” bow?
In 2007, former Māori Party co-leader Pita Sharples and former National MP Georgina te Heuheu said programmes like Police Ten 7 portrayed “negative stereotypes of Māori as underachievers and criminals”. They were responding to TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis suggesting Police Ten 7 and other shows met charter requirements for Māori programming. In the face of criticism he conceded that Police Ten 7 “was probably not the best example of a mainstream television programme containing Māori content”.
Police Ten 7 purports to help solve crime. But if police seem unwilling to properly confront bias towards Māori why should they get a weekly slot to place rose-tinted glasses on the viewing public? Maybe it’s time Police Ten 7 went the way of Cops: to the scrap heap with a focus on actually keeping communities safer – together.