Police commissioner Andrew Coster (Photo: Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)
Police commissioner Andrew Coster (Photo: Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyJune 18, 2020

‘We need to examine our attitudes’: Andrew Coster on policing and racial justice

Police commissioner Andrew Coster (Photo: Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)
Police commissioner Andrew Coster (Photo: Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)

Last night the new police commissioner, Andrew Coster, spoke at a vigil for George Floyd held at St Peter’s Church in Wellington.

The events of the past few weeks have given us all opportunity to reflect on our own community, on our own lives. As a father, as a police officer, I find the events that led to the death of George Floyd shocking. The complete absence of humanity or empathy in his treatment, and what that treatment symbolises, have rightly triggered an outcry in the United States and across the globe.

In this context, it’s right that we gather to reflect about our own situation in Aotearoa.

While I believe New Zealand’s style of policing is different to that we see in many other countries, we have to acknowledge that criminal justice outcomes for Māori in particular are appalling. This is not a situation that we should ever accept and I do not accept it.

It seems to me that if we’re to shift this problem we must first care enough to want to shift it. In this regard, it is hugely encouraging to see the strength of support for a dialogue about racial justice in New Zealand. Our ability to have this conversation in an open and mature way will, in my view, determine whether or not we are able to make a meaningful shift.

I believe it’s only by attempting to put ourselves in the shoes of others that we can hope to be able to respond appropriately. Whether it’s in the inhumane treatment of someone by a police officer, as we saw with George Floyd, racial tensions running within society, or the acceptance of extremely poor outcomes for sections of our community, the ability to see and understand each other as human beings will be the beginning of change.

In talking about culture to our people in police, one of my aspirations is that we should bring humanity to every interaction. This is about resisting the cynicism that can grow from always being presented with the hardest situations – we need to recognise that there is almost always a life course and circumstances that lead people to the places they are in when we deal with them.

We deal with people at the worst times of their lives, and we do that day in, day out. However, if we’re to be part of the solution, we need to maintain hope that people’s lives can change and we need to take the time to understand and respond appropriately to their circumstances.

In policing, and in criminal justice generally, we are frequently operating as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We do not get to control who comes off the cliff. This is a function of a range of disadvantage, whether social, economic, health or education – and often a combination of all of the above.

In the incidents we are called to, whether reports of crime or disorder, mental health crises, or tension in families, our people must deal with what’s in front of them. Sadly, Māori are over-represented in many of the challenging situations that we send Police to resolve every day.

In that sense, the use of raw statistics to judge policing outcomes doesn’t fairly reflect the complexity of social problems to which we’re asked to respond. However, we can be part of the solution and we must make sure we are not part of the problem.

Fundamental in this is ensuring that there is fairness in the way we go about our mahi, whether in relation to prosecution decisions, use of force, and how we direct discretionary policing effort. These are areas that I believe we should test and I am committed to doing that in my five year term as police commissioner. That means being able to identify whether the way in which we’re making our decisions sees unexplained discrepancies between like situations, and where we do find these, finding ways to shift them.

It is my desire that New Zealand Police will be a leader in helping to improve the lives of New Zealanders who are not doing as well as the rest of us.

NZ Police has invested substantial effort over the last 10 to 20 years in building our cultural competence and growing our network of iwi liaison officers. Overall, we enjoy strong relationships with iwi, Pacific and ethnic communities and engage with well-established advisory boards to guide our thinking. We have developed new ways of working that emphasise solutions by Māori for Māori.

One of the strongest examples here is Te Pae Oranga, through which offenders for less serious offences may be diverted away from the formal criminal justice system to appear before an iwi panel and receive wrap around responses in a marae-based setting. This initiative has been evaluated very favourably with demonstrated positive impacts compared to the alternative of prosecution, and many Māori have benefitted from this approach.

We have also adopted very different ways of policing with community and iwi in efforts to build community resilience when dealing with difficult problems such as drug harm. One such example, Operation Notus, was particularly poignant because it occurred in cooperation with Tūhoe, an iwi that has experienced considerable injustice in previous encounters with policing.

On this occasion, having investigated substantial organised criminal activity impacting the community of Kawerau, police worked hand-in-hand with Tūhoe in planning the operation termination. This included seeking appropriate health-oriented responses for those suffering from drug addictions and, where tamariki were caught up in this, arranging iwi rather than state-led responses for those children. This joint working was very restorative of the relationship between New Zealand Police and Tūhoe, and is illustrative of the way we wish to work in future.

Similarly, Police has recently demonstrated its commitment to understanding and responding appropriately to the needs of Māori communities through the way we collaborated with iwi checkpoints established in response to the spread of Covid-19. We have also responded to the strong community feedback about the recently concluded armed response team trial and have restated our commitment to operating as a generally unarmed police service. These examples are clear indications of my commitment to leading an organisation that is tuned in and responsive to community needs and expectations.

I recognise that positive responsiveness initiatives by themselves are not enough to address racial injustice. We need to examine our attitudes and behaviours to ensure they embody fairness for all people.

New Zealand Police is a large organisation of 14,000 people, which is representative of much of the diversity that exists in New Zealand communities. I can say with absolute confidence that our people come to work to do an outstanding job for our communities, and they do so in the face of incredibly difficult situations that come across their path every day.

We will not always get it right, and where individuals are demonstrating attitudes or behaviours that do not align with our values, we will respond assertively. However, it is worth recognising that, for every less ideal situation that may make the media for some reason or other, there are thousands of other difficult situations and interactions that we have navigated and resolved with great professionalism.

I recognise too that it’s not just about individual behaviours or attitudes about which we need to be concerned. We need to examine the behaviours and practices of our organisation as a whole, to make sure that it is operating in ways that are fair and that promote equity for all people. Again, this is something that I’m committed to doing.

I would ask you for understanding as we work to support our people with the change that’s required. There is no easy quick fix here. There will be steps forward and steps back. When there is a step back, I welcome the opportunity to talk and work to resolution.

I’m very proud of the organisation I lead. Our people are genuinely committed to our vision that New Zealand should be the safest country. We are an increasingly diverse organisation that is aspirational for our country and what it can become. I welcome the public conversation about racial justice, including how we would like to police in the future. It’s only through dialogue that we can have a meeting of minds and achieve the change we wish to see.

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