'Dawn raids were racist' - Sir Kim Workman quit senior police role to protest

By Jessica Tyson

Sir Kim Workman became a police officer in 1958 after developing a passion for social justice. But after years in his career he decided to quit after witnessing racism in the police force.

Sir Kim quit as a senior sergeant during the time of the Dawn Raids, a series of raids carried out at random by police during the mid-1970s against Pacific immigrants.

At the time, a number of police officers were appointed to carry out raids in Wellington.

“The behaviour of those units were disgusting. Even as a senior sergeant in Lower Hutt, I had no control over what they did. It encouraged racist talk and it became safe to be racists and, if you weren’t racist, you were on the other,” Sir Kim says.

Political decision

Sir Kim says a major problem was that the raids focused only on Pacific Island overstayers and not overstayers from other nations.

“What worried me was that it was a political decision made by the government of the day. The commissioner folded like a pack of cards. The constitutional position is clear that the politicians have a say on policy but they can’t direct the police in terms of the way they manage operations.”

Even earlier in his career as a police officer, Sir Kim remembers racism.

“When I joined in 1958 there were 26 of us Māori police officers and 2500 police officers. We didn’t have much say in what happened. It was pretty unpleasant at times,” Sir Kim says.

Rebellious days

“I told my friend to apply, so he did. His supervisor asked for my report. Questions were like, 'What colour has he painted his house? Are there any cars in his front yard? Does he speak any proper lingo? And what clothes would he wear All racist. I refused to accept it. I was so angry.”

Sir Kim decided to join the Anglican Māori Kapa haka group but was told by an inspector to “disengage” because it was unsettling for a police officer to be seen in public wearing “a grass skirt”.

“After a few days I sent back a formal memo. I was happy to step down if they disestablished the police pipe band.”  

After quitting, Sir Kim moved to the Ombudsman's office and spent seven years investigating complaints made against public administrations.

“My speciality was investigating complaints against the police because in those days there were no police complaints authority or complaints by prisoners. It was at the point when I visited prisons and I saw how they were run and I became very interested in the welfare of prisons and their whānau.”

Awarded for 'being a nuisance'

He was appointed to head prison services and established a mentoring programme for released prisoners. In 2019 he was knighted for services to prisoner welfare and the justice sector.

When he received the letter saying he was to become a knight, he first thought it was a practical joke but then decided to accept it.

“When I thought about it, I’ve been working around the issues of justice reform for 20 years. I was 78 when it happened. I thought ‘Finally, you can be awarded a knighthood for just being a nuisance," Sir Kim says.

“When I started, it wasn’t a popular issue. People were tough on crime rhetoric, wanted to see people put in prison for longer and longer. So that was the beginning of that particular battle and we just kept going, so it was lovely to be acknowledged in that way.”

Sir Kim Workman appeared on Te Ngākau Tapatahi, a show profiling Māori dames and knights. The new series from the Māori Television newsroom is running this week on Māori Television at 12pm. Find the first five episodes on Māori+ now and the full series from Sunday, January 23.