Apr 12, 2013

The Police: culture change edition

I submitted six OIAs on Monday: one to Te Puni Kokiri, one to the ministries of education, corrections and justice respectively and one to the Parole Board and the Police. I had a prompt response from every department – except the Police. Five days after the fact they haven’t even acknowledged receipt. Their record in responding to OIA requests is tragic, but not nearly as tragic as their record prosecuting young Maori.

JustSpeak has run through Police statistics that reveal Maori aged 10 to 16 years old are more likely to be prosecuted than Pakeha of the same age. JustSpeak compared apprehension rates against prosecution rates across 15 offence categories. Across most categories there are more apprehensions of Maori youth, but in every category the prosecution rate is higher.

This isn’t a surprise. Well, not for anyone living in or with extensive experience in poor communities. Racial profiling is common and race is the unspoken consideration when deciding whether to prosecute. Strictly speaking, the seriousness of the offence; the strength of evidence; the number and type of associated offences for which the person may also have been arrested on that occasion; previous offending; support networks and a handful of other considerations will be weighed.

I’ll admit that it’s difficult to pin causation here, but abductive reasoning suggests that race must be an aggravating factor in prosecuting decisions. The apprehension rate across many serious offences categories are similar, and in sexual assaults and illicit drug offences the apprehension rate is higher for Pakeha. Despite this, the prosecution rate against Maori is still higher.* So it can’t be said that Maori commit more serious offences. Even then, in the serious offence categories themselves the likelihood of being prosecuted is higher for Maori.** It could also be argued that there is usually more evidence against Maori offenders. There’s a racist assumption underlying that point. No Right Turn hits it:

“It’s difficult to see how… "evidence" would track so closely the colour of the accused's skin - unless it was the colour of the accused's skin… The former is simply a claim that "Maori are criminals”

If you come from a poor community, preferably a poor brown one, you know intuitively that race and class are an unspoken consideration. It’s difficult to avoid that conclusion when Maori are more likely to be prosecuted than non-Maori for committing the same crime. To argue otherwise is usually to argue from the premise that Maori are just more criminal. Auckland University Law lecturer Kylee Quince found that:

At least two thirds of the 737 police respondents reported hearing colleagues use racist language about Maori. Many reported a greater tendency to suspect Maori of an offence, or to stop and query Maori driving “flash” cars. Overall, the data suggested that about 25 per cent of police have negative attitudes towards Maori.

This is neither entirely unexpected nor does it constitute an international exception. In the US African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.*** In South Australia Aboriginal people make up 0.7% of the population but account for 14% of admissions to prison. The Australian Law Reform Commission cites research attributing the disparity to "differences in arrest, prosecution and sentencing practices". There's an element of racism that persists in former colonial societies.

There are different realities with the Police: one for white and one for brown; one for the rich and one for the poor. There’s an intersection between the two. There needs to be a culture change in the Police.

Post script: Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party are vocal on this issue which is encouraging.

*Although, in the drug offences category the disparity is only 2%. I don’t think that’s statistically significant.

**This isn’t new. Ministry of Justice figures in 1999 revealed prosecution rate for young Maori people aged ten-16 years at 76.2 per 1000 population, compared with 16.95 per 1000 population for non-Maori. Maori adults were 3.8 times more likely to be prosecuted than non-Maori and 3.9 times more likely to be convicted of an offence.

***See this very interesting fact sheet from the NAACP.


  1. Although, in the drug offences category the disparity is only 2%. I don’t think that’s statistically significant.

    Its not. p = 0.24, so there's a reasonable chance the disparity could happen by chance alone. Likewise the results for robbery (p = .14), property damage (p = 0.09) and fraud (p = 0.07) are not significant.

    OTOH, the results for injuring, unlawful entry, theft and public order offences all have p less than 0.00005. Which mens that there's a less than 5 in 100,000 chance that the results have arisen by chance and there is in fact no disparity. Such significant results demand investigation.

    (Meanwhile, it would really help JustSpeak if they did this analysis themselves, rather than leaving it to random people to work out for themselves).

    1. Thanks for that. It would, but I'm assume they don't have the resources. They're a group of volunteers (and mainly students at that).

    2. The resources required are a free spreadsheet package; students are likely to have the knowledge (or know someone who has the knowledge) to do the analysis. its not particularly difficult and it lends weight to the raw results.

    3. For public education / awareness there's always a tension between accessible data and robustness. When I've presented information for similar purposes, even the use of percentages has been debated (people tend to remember raw numbers more easily).

      JustSpeak's blog post asks the Government to explain these numbers, and so far the response has been disappointing, with no assurance that discrimination (whether ethnic, socio-economic or regional) is being monitored and measured.



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