(Radio NZ: Richard Tindiller)

The missing Māori inside the agency that investigates police misconduct

As of 2018, the Independent Police Conduct Authority had zero Māori employees. For a police system that loudly embraces diversity, that’s not good enough, writes Carrie Buckmaster.

We have known that Māori do not receive a fair go from the justice system for some time. In 2015 the Police Commissioner spoke with media about unconscious bias in police relations with Māori and the positive steps they were taking to address it. While the NZ Police appear to be taking the bull by the horns, what about our police oversight organisation?

The recent report by Te Uepū pai i te Ora (Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group) adds urgency to calls for a more inclusive police complaints service that encourages Māori participation. With the justice minister signalling a criminal justice system overhaul, now is the time to ensure that the police complaints service is not overlooked.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) handles complaints about misconduct or neglect of duty, police practices, policies and procedures. The authority can investigate complaints independently, review police investigations, and make recommendations for improvements to New Zealand Police. Currently the IPCA is overwhelmingly Pākehā. As of 2018, 94% of employees identified as either NZ European or Overseas European. Not one member of the IPCA identified as Māori and only 6% identified as Pacific Peoples.

As a first generation Pākehā this makes me intensely uncomfortable. I cannot speak for how the lack of representation would feel if I were Māori, and how it may influence whether I would choose to make a formal complaint to the IPCA if I had a grievance.

There is an information vacuum as to whether bias is playing out in the IPCA’s work. Although police data can identify disparity in how police apply discretion, there appears to be no similar data available for how IPCA complaints are handled. Agencies that better represent the communities they serve, particularly those members who are often underrepresented, are more likely to produce policies and decisions that benefit those groups and the community as a whole.

Over the past two decades calls for a more inclusive police complaints service that encourages Māori participation have gone unanswered. The 1998 report ‘Māori Perceptions of the Police’ reported concern from Māori that the authority would be self-protecting and biased in favour of the police, should Māori bring a complaint against the institution or individuals within it. That report recommended that an additional independent authority be established to address complaints by Māori against the police.

The 2000 Gallen Report further recommended recognising treaty partnership obligations, with an authority board membership position to represent the Māori population. When the Independent Police Conduct Amendment Bill went to its third reading in 2007, Dr Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Māori Party, proposed two amendments: first, to introduce an autonomous Māori investigative branch of the authority, and second to introduce an independent police complaints authority review agency to allow the decisions and activities of the authority to be appealed. Neither amendment was passed. Opposition to the first amendment included concerns about police morale and an expression of offence that the proposal ‘betrays the idea that we all have the rights as citizens to be treated equally and that we should endeavour that our institutions reflect the totality of life’.

It is shameful for all these calls for improvement to go unheeded. It is possible to take a path forward that takes opposing views into account. We do all have a right to be treated fairly. The IPCA can reflect the community it serves. Police morale will not necessarily be negatively affected by the IPCA looking inward for bias, and outward at how they engage. On the contrary, having the IPCA look to NZ Police for examples of good practice may act to bolster morale.

One example can be found in New Zealand Police’s current four-year plan which sets a strategic human resource goal of the constabulary workforce having the same proportion of Māori as the general population. The IPCA can achieve a more representative bureaucracy through growth, retaining all existing staff. As at 30 June 2018 the IPCA employed 30 staff. That’s roughly 6 employees for every million New Zealanders. By contrast, the police oversight body for England and Wales employs 17 people per million citizens. There is room to grow.

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Improvements can be made to how the IPCA engages with Māori. There is opportunity for Te Uepū pai i te Ora to engage with Māori communities to understand how they would like the police complaints process to work. We also have previous reviews to draw from. One submission to the Gallen inquiry indicated it was important be able to make a complaint face to face, as some people found writing a letter, completing a form or recording a voice message a barrier. Gallen recommended extending the number of organisations to which a complaint can be made, ‘in particular including places or organisations which are more likely to be acceptable to those individuals and groups within society who do not find it easy to go to organisations which are seen as being part of the establishment.’

What might an implementation of Gallen’s recommendation look like in practice? Justice of the Peace, kaumātua, local MPs, Community Law Centres, Citizens’ Advice Bureaus, and others may be willing to provide less intimidating and more accessible ways to register police complaints. A partnership model would be a major shift change in service provision perhaps best approached through one or more regional pilots.

Finally, we know measuring performance is important for accountability and to enable continuous improvement. Gathering statistics to highlight the presence or absence of bias within the organisation’s work is necessary in order to understand how well the IPCA is serving our communities. Valuable statistics to track (grouped by client ethnicity) include the number of complaints raised, the categorisation of the complaint, the outcome, and the client’s satisfaction with both the outcome and the process they experienced to get to that outcome. Filling the current information-void is a big step towards understanding whether there is bias in how police complaints are handled, addressing it where it occurs, and building informed trust in the work of the IPCA.

Carrie Buckmaster helps deliver technology-enabled public services and evidence-based strategy. She holds a Master’s of Public Management from Victoria University of Wellington


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