Native Affairs: Racism in NZ – Seeking Justice

By Carmen Parahi

New Zealand Police accept they have an issue of unconscious bias against Māori but fail to reduce the number of Māori being arrested.

Two years ago, Police Commissioner Mike Bush admitted there was a bias amongst police against Māori. Waitematā Police District Commander Tusha Penny told Native Affairs since then police have been working to address the issue.

"We actually are vigilant to ensure that the people who should get a pre-charge warning do.  We actually look for any conflict around ethnicity so we do have checks and balances," says Superintendent Penny.

Police say they've achieved a 35% decrease in Māori youth prosecutions since 2012, under the Whanau Ora based Turning of the Tide policy. But prosecutions for repeat Māori offenders rose up to 5%. And last year, there was no change in the number of first-time Māori offenders.

But the head of the School of Law at the Auckland University of Technology Kylie Quince says despite two years of police recognising unconscious bias, there has been no reduction in the number of Māori being arrested. "No, absolutely not. There's been zero impact."

"All the research shows that most people have an unconscious bias towards people that look like them, sound like them and behave like them. And the flipside to that is that we then tend to have suspicion or don't grant the benefit of discretion to people that are different to us or sound different from us."

Superintendent Penny says police leaders do workshops on the Treaty of Waitangi and New Zealand history. Every officer is challenged to examine their own biases. "So when you are challenged about actually we might have some cracks as individuals, as leaders, yeah, it hurts. And it's hurt some of our people because they say we’re not racist."

Police are two times more likely to stop and question Māori and four times more likely to arrest Māori. Superintendent Penny is from Ngāti Porou and is the first female district commander. "For me unconscious bias comes about from our experiences, what we've experienced even from a young child going through what we've seen and it can form part of our judgement."

Earlier this year, Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy delivered New Zealand's report card to the United Nations. She spoke to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva about the high Māori arrest, conviction and prison numbers

"Māori New Zealanders are over-represented at all stages of the justice system.  If you are a Māori New Zealander you are more likely to have a lower income, suffer poorer health and engage in the criminal justice system than any other New Zealanders."

For minor misdemeanours, with no criminal record, police have the discretion to give a pre-charge warning. But in her report to the United Nations, Dame Susan Devoy noted that Māori are less likely to receive diversion or cautions from police.

But Superintendent Penny is backing police efforts to change.

"Unconscious bias is alive and well across every organisation, across society and as police we want to have it front and centre, we want to be vigilant. We want to be aware of what it can mean and we want to make sure in particular that our leaders and our people understand it and that it doesn't affect our decision-making at the end of the day."