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SocietyNovember 28, 2019

Arming police is heavy-handed and ill-advised – and Māori and Pasifika will pay the price

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We know that implicit bias exists in our society. It exists in our workplaces, it exists in our schools, and exists when our police use guns, writes Fa’anana Efeso Collins, a former researcher in youth gangs and currently councillor for Manukau. 

Earlier this year I went along to the Pasifika Youth Court as an observer. I attended with scepticism, but found myself deeply moved by a process that worked in partnership with our young people, their families and the justice system.

The court’s aim is to reconnect youth offenders not only to their culture but to the community they had wronged. And it’s working – with research showing that this court and its Māori equivalent have been proven to reduce re-offending rates. But beyond the pragmatic purpose of this process, there was something beautiful about the way compassion and cultural familiarity fills this space. Our own languages were spoken, our elders were present, and our own customs were honoured. Through this merging of two ancient traditions, one founded in Westminster, London, the other in the islands of the Pacific, our young people were being ushered back into relationship with their friends, family and the victims of their crimes.

However, this symbiotic merging of cultures is more like a high-speed crash involving a log truck and a motorbike when considering the latest policing initiative for South Auckland. Armoured vehicles with gun-toting cops, called Armed Response Teams, will now patrol the streets of the Counties Manukau district, and will do for the next six months.

Police have chosen South Auckland in response to increased presence of organised crime and guns, a reality I won’t deny. I do however seriously question the logic that peace in our community might be achieved through the introduction of even more guns – even in the hands of police.

Far from feeling protected, I have serious fears for the safety and wellbeing of my South Auckland community. I especially fear for Māori and Pasifika that are the likely targets of this trial.

The latest report on tactical options used by police revealed that Māori accounted for over half of all events where tactical options were applied, more than any other ethnicity combined. Pasifika were also over-represented in this statistic. Where Pākehā are more likely to have handcuffs, restraints, or empty hand force used on them, Māori and Pasifika are likely to experience more extreme tactics in the form of OC spray or tasers. Most worryingly, two-thirds of all people shot by police in the last 10 years have been Māori or Pasifika.

Such appalling statistics indicate that discrimination against Māori and Pasifika is real. We know that implicit bias exists in our society. It exists in our workplaces, it exists in our schools, and exists when our police use guns.

So, when our communities are so vulnerable to violence, when the stakes are potentially fatal, where is the justification in militarising our police?

A Princeton study of a similar initiative run in Maryland revealed that militarising the police had no discernible impact on reducing violent crime. What it did achieve, however, was a noticeable erosion in the public’s perception of police.

In South Auckland, our trust and confidence in the police is already lower than other parts of the country. People are scared to engage at every level of our justice system and I regularly hear stories of racial profiling and aggressive over-policing that leave my community feeling targeted, humiliated and like it’s always going to be “us versus them”. In order to effectively engage with our people, police must focus on mending this relationship instead of introducing initiatives that will seriously damage it.

Tackling the problem of gangs also requires us to acknowledge that gangs provide our people with opportunities that they are unable to find elsewhere.

Gangs provide income, status and employment, when legitimate job opportunities run dry. They provide a sense of pride and purpose when the state has left you disempowered. They provide you with a sense of family and friendship when you’ve been cut off from your community. They also provide a sense of identity when your own culture has been devalued.

To effectively deal with gangs, we must heal the intergenerational trauma that has been caused by a history of colonisation, displacement, institutionalised racism and poverty. We must treat the root cause and establish a way forward that acknowledges indigenous struggle or Pacific diaspora at its core. To rid our communities of gang violence, we must look across the spectrum of our community services to initiatives that are making a difference.

The Pasifika Youth Court is exactly the type of approach which can lead to meaningful change, rather than the blunt tool that is the Armed Response Teams. Culturally-grounded, whanau-led processes can flip a system that all too often works in isolation from the people it targets. We must put the power back in the hands of our people and recognise that community-led approaches are best practice. We must focus on preventative measures that are informed by the community and carried out in collaboration with them. And we must push back on heavy-handed, top-down initiatives that refuse to acknowledge the root cause of gang violence.

South Auckland is my home, a community – not a training ground for ill-thought out policy that could see our people wind up as collateral damage. We are resilient, capable and we will continue to survive. More so, we will fight for the opportunity to flourish and succeed, without guns.

After my visit to the Pasifika Youth Court, I was imbued with a renewed sense of hope that meaningful justice and community harmony are possible for our region when we put our people and their cultural identity at the centre of the process.

So instead of continuing down a road that’s marked by fear, cynicism and violence, let us choose hope – founded on what is already working.

Keep going!