Monday, 15 July 2013

'Statistics, Damn Statistics.. and Bullsh*t': a Critique of 'Newboldian' Criminological Analysis of Maori and Crime

The following entry is a response to analysis of Maori and crime made by Professor Greg Newbold during a debate with Moana Jackson on Maori TV's Native Affairs in June 2013.

In previous blogs I have argued that one of the key issues facing First Nation peoples is the propensity for non-Indigenous commentators (whether criminologists, journalists or shock-jocks) to talk bullshit about First Nation peoples and crime.  More often than not, when critically analysing their comments you find that rarely is their position/perspective or critique backed by empirical research of the kind that requires you actually go talk to Indigenous peoples about their experiences of crime and crime control.  

A few weeks ago we observed yet another episode of this kind of behaviour, this time in the form of University of Canterbury criminologist, Professor Greg Newbold's performance on Maori TV's excellent show, Native Affairs (Monday 17 June, 2013).  I recommend that anyone who hasn't seen the show do so as it represents an interesting approach to the issue of whether or not police practice in New Zealand is biased, and whether or not bias plays a part in incidents that result in police shooting and killing Maori.  

The part of the show dedicated to this topic covered a number of issues, including an interesting discussion with Wally Haumaha from NZ Police National Headquarters, who's comments on the possibility of police bias were far more reticent than those offered recently on the same topic by the current Police Commissioner who unequivocally stated that there was no 'bias in New Zealand Police', and that perceptions of it as such were uninformed.  

It should come as no surprise that senior management of New Zealand Police would make these kinds statements despite empirical and anecdotal evidence to the contrary (e.g. Jackson, 1988; MRL, 1993; 1995; New Zealand Police and Te Puni Kokiri, 2001). If we take the Commissioner's position and that expressed later in the piece by Professor Newbold, then none of this 'evidence' is of any use to a debate on the issue of bias because it isn't the 'right' kind of evidence (more on that point below). In the case of the Commissioner, he was using the time honoured strategy employed of New Zealand police officials to sideline criticism of the organisation, namely presenting research or commentary that demonstrates the existence of bias or racism within the organisation as simply a reflection of peoples uninformed 'perceptions' of policing, rather than their actual experiences of it.  

The term 'perception' is critical to any/all discussions on the issue of bias in the criminal justice system, because it is a favourite rhetorical device of policy makers/criminal justice officials and Authoritarian Criminologists in New Zealand and other Settler Societies, who seek to dismiss any criticism of their activities, especially by minorities and First Nations. In using this term commentators are implying that we never 'experience' policing, we only have uninformed, unevidenced 'perceptions' of it.  

The underlying bias inherent in this  semantic stupidity is obvious when you analyse it for what it is saying about the Indigenous experience and critical criminological commentary: 1) 'We (in this case New Zealand Police) reject any and all accusations of bias in our dealings with Maori or any other population group; therefore 2) any evidence/claims of said bias is pure fiction, based on unsubstantiated perception; 3) any evidence that is generated via empirical research is tainted by the fact it was carried out by a biased researcher (meaning anyone who disagrees with or critiques the organisation is automatically assumed to be biased/subjective/probably a tree-hugging socialist, etc, etc); 4) anyone having experienced policing who then claims bias can be dismissed because they are probably an offender (who we haven't caught yet), or someone in their family is/was, so anything they say is invalid; and 5) we actually have no evidence to support our claim there is no bias, but in our case we don't need to prove any statements we make, unlike our critics'.

Before discussing Professor Newbold's statements, I want to make the following response to senior managers within the New Zealand Police, starting with the current Commissioner -  your recent claim that there is no bias in the force is clearly ridiculous and contradicts the small amount of research that has been published on this issue, and the stated position of some of your predecessors. If you actually believe the comments you made on this issue and if you are inferring that New Zealand's is the only police force in any Western jurisdiction that has no bias/racism, then you a) need to do more reading (such as the aforementioned New Zealand material and perhaps some of the hundreds of reports from other western jurisdictions, such as Bowling and Phillips, 2007, Hall et al, 1989 and Holdaway, 1996 amongst numerous others) and/or b) resign because someone this uninformed shouldn't be in charge of such a powerful institution.

So, how about we put aside the bullsh*t and work to do something about the problem... cool?  And a good start would be for the key justice agencies, the Ministry of Justice in particular, to step aside and allow independent, critical research on the topic of bias (see previous comments on this issue, in earlier blogs); which brings me to Professor Newbold's comments on Maori, crime and bias. 

The Newboldian Perspective on Maori and Crime
Let me begin by saying that I have great respect for Professor Newbold's work on penal policy in New Zealand; but that this respect usually evaporates when he comments on Maori issues.  

As for his latest attempt at expert commentary on Maori crime, where to begin?  We could spend an hour alone talking about his insensitive, provocative comments that a Maori victim of a police shooting should have been shot in the heart and not the head.  I note that Greg has refused to apologise for these words, claiming he was only stating a 'fact'.  Indeed, this is true to a point, police are (or should be) trained to aim at the body as it is larger in mass and therefore easier to hit.  But it is equally reasonable to predict and prepare for the fact that the comment would be hugely insensitive to the deceased's whanau, friends and others in the community, that the attitude expressed would come across as arrogant and insensitive.  Personally, I suspect that Greg wouldn't give a shite about any of that, as he probably got the outcome he wanted, to be provocative and to sound informed. The fact that his comments added nothing substantive to the discussion that was taking place at that particular point was irrelevant. 

So instead, let's deal with other elements of the analysis Professor Newbold offered in what I will call his 'Newboldian analysis of Maori and crime', a world where bias, at least that which is directed at Maori, does not appear to be allowed to exist, and which is willed away regardless of existing evidence, or lack of evidence to the contrary.  And so to my critique and in no particular order of importance:

1. There is no evidence of police bias: yes there is, and as an experienced New Zealand criminologist I expect Professor Newbold to have read it.  Ah, but of course the main issue is the nature of the 'evidence', right?  According to Professor Newbold the only valid research is that which is 'controlled', meaning that which is 'scientific'.  This can only be described as a load of tutai which rather conveniently ignores an extensive amount of published, critical criminological material that critiques the methodologies he seems to prefer. I could list and discuss the criticisms here, but as Professor Newbold is an experienced criminologist I shouldn't have to, he should already know what they are. For everyone else, Jock Young's recent expose of the fallacy of 'scientific' criminology, The Criminological Imagination (2011) is a good place to start.

2. Maori are over-represented in the criminal justice system because of their violent offending and drunkenness (my paraphrasing of one of his key arguments):  Certainly, the levels and nature of our offending goes some way to explaining our over-representation, but to dismiss bias the way Professor Newbold did, is intellectually redundant and can be critiqued in a number of ways, a) by repeating that evidence of bias and racism does in fact exist, but to recognise it for what it is, requires putting aside convenient bias against 'non-scientific' research methodologies; b) by recognising that there is significant evidence that racism and bias exists in jurisdictions we often compare ourselves to, such as Great Britain and Australia, which then begs the question 'why would we be the exception to the rule'?  

In turn I would ask those making the argument that there is 'no evidence of bias', to provide evidence that everything is actually ok, that bias and racism does not exist: Just as bias alone cannot explain Maori over-representation, nor can one make, with any scholarly authority the simplistic argument that bias and racism has nothing to do with it.

3. Research in Australia demonstrates that Aboriginal peoples are treated more leniently by the criminal justice system: I take it that Professor Newbold was referring to research carried out by Jeffries and Bond?  In this particular case he was likely referring to their analysis of sentencing decision in New South Wales.  If so, yes their research did show that (but you might like to take a long, hard look at the 'scientific' methodology before using the findings uncritically, as was done here), but for some reason Professor Newbold failed to a) contextualise his argument by mentioning other research published by the same authors that demonstrates bias in sentencing-related decision-making in the Queensland jurisdiction (in particular the lower courts) (see Bond and Jeffries, 2011); and b) the existence of plenty of other research that demonstrates bias policing practices across various Australian jurisdictions, carried out by criminologists Harry Blagg, Thalia Anthony, Chris Cunneen and so on. 

4. The only valid research has be 'scientific'; it has to 'control' for certain variables: hogwash... see previous comments about the work of Jock Young.  The Professor might wish to engage with the qualitatively informed work on biased policing in England (Hall et al, 1978), just for starters and go from there to engage with the truckload of critical, 'grounded', ethnographic, detailed research that demonstrates the existence of bias in contemporary, Western, neo-liberal societies, like Great Britain, the U.S, Australia and... New Zealand. Comments made during Native Affairs about how complex bias research is/can be because of all the things you need to 'control for' is true to a point, but conveniently ignores the (validity of) research findings from scholars who employ observational and ethnograpnic techniques.  All of this demonstrates the weakness of some of the arguments Professor Newbold offered on Native Affairs. Overall, it appeared that the statements made were highly selective in terms of the so-called 'evidence' used to support them, while at the same time, a different 'measure' of quality was used to critique alternative perspectives.

and lastly

5. That the research Moana is carrying out on police/Maori engagements would only be valid when published in a 'reputable criminology journal': my response is to ask 'what qualifies as a reputable journal'?  Would it be Criminology, or the Australian New Zealand Journal of Criminology, or the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, all of which have poor records of publishing research on bias based on engaging methodologies?  Is the Professor not aware of the inherent bias in many of the leading criminological journals and other publications, as pointed out by Biko Agozino (2003), who's expose is supported by a soon to be published article by Dr Antje Deckert (AUT University) that confirms the paucity of Indigenous-centred research across the entire range of 'reputable criminology journals' in Settler Societies? I have a sneaky suspicion that reputable Indigenous-focused journals such as MAI Review and the Indigenous Policy Journal, and perhaps even QUT's own International Journal for Crime and Justice, wouldn't make the Professor's list of 'reputable' journals, most likely because they break a cardinal rule of Authoritarian Criminology - namely that they publish research where academics have actually gone out and engaged with Indigenous peoples, and sought to privilege the Indigenous experience of crime control, rather than hide behind the 'cloak of objectivity'.

Agozino B (2003) Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason. London: Pluto Press.  
Bond C and Jeffries S (2011) Indigeneity and the Likelihood of Imprisonment in Queensland’s Adult and Children’s Courts. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law 19(2): 169–183
Bowling B and Phillips C (2007) Disproportionate and Discriminatory: Reviewing the Evidence on Police Stop and Search. Modern Law Review 70(6): 936-961.
Hall S, Critcher C, Jefferson T, Clarke J, Roberts B (1978) Policing The Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: Macmillan.
Holdaway, S (1996) The Racialisation of British Policing.  London: Macmillan.
Jackson M (1988) Maori and the Criminal Justice System: He Whaipaanga Hou: A New Perspective. Department of Justice, Wellington.
MRL Research Group (1993) Public Attitudes Towards Policing.  MRL Research Group, Wellington.
MRL Research Group (1995) Public Attitudes Towards Policing.  MRL Research Group, Wellington.
New Zealand Police and Te Puni Kokiri (2001) Challenging Perspectives: Police and Maori Attitudes Toward One Another.  New Zealand Police National Headquarters and Te Puni Kokiri, Wellington.

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