NZ’s force grows while the world calls to defund police

While the world is talking about defunding police, New Zealand is adding 1800 extra officers to its force. Laura Walters looks at whether New Zealand is taking the right approach.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the United States has brought longstanding calls to defund police into the mainstream. 

This has resulted in some police forces, including in Minneapolis where Floyd was killed, being dismantled in favour of more community-led approaches.

Meanwhile, New Zealand is forging ahead with the coalition Government’s promise to add an extra 1800 police. This plan to expand the force is seemingly at odds with moves by others to scale back traditional policing.

But those leading NZ Police, and working alongside officers, say New Zealand isn’t the United States. They say efforts are being made to create better partnerships with communities, but they need more resources to improve outcomes.

Those campaigning for a shift in crime prevention strategies say re-directing funding towards community initiatives and non-governmental organisations would help address the drivers of crime, such as mental health, addiction and poverty, by offering support rather than the strong arm of the law.

These organisations often have more trusting relationships with, and experience in, communities most affected by crime - often marginalised communities, including people of colour or those in LGBTQ communities. 

“In New Zealand, police violence is nowhere near the scale of the United States, but it is an institution made from the same ingredients."

These same issues continue to bubble away in New Zealand, and have come to the fore thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, and a recently controversial trial of armed response teams, which went ahead without proper consultation with Māori and led many in marginalised communities to feel less safe.

NZ Police is aware of these issues, which has led to a push to recruit a more diverse force, which better reflects the communities it serves. Over the past two years, the number of Māori frontline officers has grown by 20 percent, there are also 38 percent more Pasifika officers, 79 percent more Asian officers, and 32 percent more women.

It has also created Māori and ethnic communities strategies, and bolstered initiatives such as the iwi community panels; cross-departmental programmes to address family violence and sexual violence; piloting the inclusion of a mental health worker on every callout; and creating more pathways to alternative dispute resolutions and treatment or support for addiction in collaboration with iwi.

Despite new initiatives and efforts to build genuine and productive partnerships with iwi and communities, the statistics continue to show a pattern of perverse outcomes.

Māori make up more than 50 percent of the prison population, but just 16.5 percent of the general population.

These numbers can be partially attributed to the disproportionate rate of interaction Māori have with police.

Māori rates of police contact are three times higher than those of non-Māori, and Māori are:

  • six times more likely than Pākehā to have a gun pulled on them;
  • nine times more likely to be tasered;
  • 10 times more likely to have a dog set on them; and
  • 11 times more likely to be pepper sprayed.

Lawyer and criminal justice reform advocate Julia Amua Whaipooti (Ngāti Porou) wrote in a piece for The Guardian that racial profiling and systemic racism underpin policing institutions.

“In New Zealand, police violence is nowhere near the scale of the United States, but it is an institution made from the same ingredients,” she wrote.

And Auckland University of Technology criminal justice experts Katey Thom and Khylee Quince (Te Roroa/Ngapuhi and Ngati Porou) recently wrote about the opportunity to reform New Zealand Police, again citing racism.

They said people clung to the 'this is not us' myth.

“It’s a nice sentiment, and no doubt reflects a deep-seated belief of many that equality and tolerance are core cultural values. But it is not the reality experienced by many in our community,” they said.

But those at the top of policing, including Police Minister Stuart Nash and Police Association President Chris Cahill, deny the existence of any kind of systemic racism. They prefer the more palatable term ‘unconscious bias’.

“It’s certainly not the police forces that you hear and see about in some overseas countries."

The Police Association’s Cahill said some systems and policies had unintended consequences, which created worse outcomes for Māori, and needed to be addressed

“It’s certainly not the police forces that you hear and see about in some overseas countries,” he said.

Cahill said he was “disappointed” with some groups who had “jumped on the Black Lives Matter cause, and for their own political ends tried to raise it as a significant issue and link it to how we police in New Zealand”.

He said this did a disservice to New Zealand's police.

“And it’s hurt police, I’ll tell you now. It hurts the officers that are doing work every day. It hurts their families... it’s putting up barriers, it’s not breaking down barriers.”

Meanwhile, newly appointed Police Commissioner Andrew Coster says the police service has invested substantial effort over the past couple of decades building its cultural competence and growing its 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,” he said. 

Black Lives Matter march in Wellington earlier this month. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

While top brass might deny the existence of systemic racism, Chester Borrows, a former police officer, National MP, and the person who led the Government's justice sector reform work, said whether these problems were labelled as systemic racism or unconscious bias didn’t matter, “because it all boils down to racist policies, or the implementation of policies which are racist”.

And while this type of racism existed, Borrows said he and others tasked with reforming the justice sector did not see a need to overhaul New Zealand’s policing model.

Like Coster, Nash and Cahill, Borrows pointed to a string of initiatives Police had been working on.

As well as iwi advisory groups and the establishment of the Commissioner’s Māori Focus Forum, Police had been trialling a range of initiatives and different ways of working with communities, iwi and other government departments. Those who spoke to Newsroom said they believed these initiatives were essentially what was being advocated for around the world, but NGOs were delivering the programmes in partnership with the police service, not instead of police.

A recent positive example of this type of policing is Te Pae Oranga, which gives offenders the choice to come before an iwi-community panel, rather than the courts, if they take responsibility for their actions. The panel decided the outcome, which may include community service, or courses or treatment programmes. Victims are also able to be involved in the hearings.

Earlier this month, Coster told the Parliamentary Justice Select Committee the initiative had achieved a reduction in offending as a consequence of intervening through the marae-based panel with services attached.

He agreed the statistics for Māori in the criminal justice system were “appalling”.

“We need to make sure we’re not part of that problem.”

Coster also held up Operation Notus as a positive example, where officers worked with iwi and other agencies to break the cycle of drug harm in the community, by helping facilitate local support systems, treatment options and, in the case of children, care options.

“[It] was particularly poignant because it occurred in cooperation with Tūhoe, an iwi that has experienced considerable injustice in previous encounters with policing,” Coster said.

The work was very restorative of the relationship, and is illustrative of the way NZ Police wanted to work in the future, he said.

“Thirty years of locking people up and ignoring the factors that cause offending in the first place have failed to make a difference. Transforming our criminal justice system will take time.”

Nash has also spoken about his focus on treating the drivers of crime.

Every year there are about 33,000 mental health callouts, 25,000 suicide-related callouts, and 340,000 traffic incidents and crashes.

And every four minutes police are called to a family harm incident.

“Complex areas like family harm, mental health and drug addictions all have a bearing on the offending figures. They require a lot of resources from police and the wider network of government and community agencies working together to make a difference,” Nash said

“Thirty years of locking people up and ignoring the factors that cause offending in the first place have failed to make a difference. Transforming our criminal justice system will take time.”

While decision-makers appear to be saying the right things and moving in the right direction, it will take both time and resources to turn things around.

These new initiatives, which all broadly come under the umbrella of the Prevention First model, have lacked proper resourcing, meaning they have not yielded the expected results.

Cahill said when people were pulled away from other teams to work on prevention, it put everyone under stress and saw morale drop.

“We weren’t able to stop the crime that was happening or solve the crime that had occurred, so we weren’t having the effect in prevention that we wanted.”

This is where the plan to add an additional 1800 officers comes in.

There have been political debates over funding, delivery dates and even the definition of the target, but in less than three years, the Government is steaming towards its target.

In March, 1200 additional police had been added to the force, over attrition, and the number of frontline police officers surpassed 10,000 for the first time ever.

But due to a spike in applications over the past few months and lower attrition rates - largely attributed to Covid - NZ Police has temporarily paused recruitment.

Regardless, most expect it to take a further 18 months to reach the 1800 goal. And say the extra resources are making a material difference in community policing, crime prevention, and stopping organised criminal syndicates.

Those who spoke to Newsroom for this article said it was important to have iwi, community groups and other departments involved in crime prevention and addressing the drivers of crime.

And they agreed with the need for funding for community organisations who worked alongside police.

But they were adamant funding should not be directed away from policing just as the force was getting the resources it needed to start delivering on its strategies.

This story has been updated to note Police has currently paused taking applications for constabulary recruitment following a large increase in applications, and drop in officer attrition rates, over the past few months.

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