Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Unconscious Bias, the New Zealand Police and Bullshit

This blog deals with two recent issues that arose in relation to the New Zealand Police (NZ Police): the first issue to be discussed is the  recent 'confession' of the Police Commissioner that some members of the NZ Police suffered from 'unconscious bias', and the second is the decision by officials at NZ Police National Headquarters to designate researcher and criminologist Jarrod Gilbert as 'unsuitable' for carrying out research because of his gang associations. 

The NZ Police, Bias, Racism and Bullshit

     Humbug: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word  or        deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes. 
                                                                                                                                Max Black

According to the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt "[o]ne of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this.  Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted". I agree entirely with Professor Frankfurt's summation of just how much bullshit is spread around, except to add the caveat that some of us contribute a whole lot more bullshit to the pile that invariable washes over the social context.

This brings me to the NZ Police Commissioner Mike Bush's recent admission that some members of the NZ Police are racist.  Well, actually not that long ago he claimed there was no racism in the NZ Police. What he is saying now is that some police might treat people differently because individuals officers possess 'unconscious bias'. Now, like me, you are probably wondering what this thing called 'unconscious bias' is. So far, the Commissioner has failed to adequately define or explain what is it. Listening to him talk on the TV show The Nation in November, 2015, I got the impression he was implying that everyone who enters the police has 'unconscious bias' against certain individuals, communities and so forth, and that their bias 'unconsciously' manifests itself in say a tendency to profile certain individuals/groups/communities during the course of police work. This in turn results in over-policing of said people/communities, thus leading to higher arrest rates, which then helps to explain disparities in the application of police discretionary powers.

I believe it is that last point that has led to the Commissioner's recent comments on unconscious bias,  Recent police-led research has identified discrepancies in the application of said powers by police.  In particular, Maori are less likely to receive the largess of police discretion to warn, not arrest, and so forth. This information helped answer the first question that popped into my head when I read the Commissioner's comments, 'what is his motivation for saying this'. It appears that the Commissioner and his advisers believe that employing the term 'unconscious bias' is useful for moving our focus away from the fact that their own research shows that racism exists in the NZ Police, and that racism in the 'force' results in unprofessional and biased conduct against Maori, and probably against Pacifica Peoples as well. 

So, now we know - there is no racism in the NZ Police, just a little bit of unconscious bias - attitudes long held that unknowingly seep into individual police officers' interactions with members of the public.

I'm calling bullshit.

First off all, the Commissioner is conveniently ignoring three pieces of relevant research on police attitudes to Maori, the MRL attitudinal surveys of the mid-1990s, and Dr Mike Roguski and Pania Te Whaiti's Maori Attitudes Towards Police research published by Te Puni Kokiri in early 2000, and Victoria University's criminology research units Police Attitudes Towards Maori project. What this research demonstrates is that many police officers hold negative, and in some cases racist, attitudes toward Maori. And the most salient point in relation to the Commissioners' claims was that they were very much aware of their bias and racism, evidenced by the number of officers who sought to justify their conduct with the usual excuses, such as while acknowledging their bias, they only arrested those who deserved it.  

Secondly, the Commissioner and his advisers appear to be ignoring the large number of Maori and Pacifica complaints to the so-called Independent Police Complaints Authority and its predecessor. Many of the complaints made by Maori and Pacifica Peoples relate to the biased conduct of police. And then like many Maori I have my own experiences of police racism. Fortunately, unlike many Maori, my experiences of police racism and bias is not personal, as in it is not directed at me.  Usually it comes in the form of comments made to me about Maori by police officers at social events, or during the numerous discussions I had with them while working in the policy sector.  More often than not they are of the 'yeah, but Maori are shit parents', or 'Maori seem to have an inherent tendency to commit crime' type of rubbish. The individuals involved are not only conscious of their bias and racism, but had no qualms about expressing it; more often than not because they were surrounded by like minded colleagues when they expressed it. 

Confronted by all the above, how can we take the Commissioner's comments seriously? How is it possible for him or anyone at NZ Police National Headquarters to excuse an officer who yells at a Maori youth 'you think you're fucken smart don't ya you little nigger'! as one did right in front of me in Courtney Place on a Friday evening in 2008, as simply suffering from unconscious bias? If you try to excuse this type of conduct, which happen on a regular basis in New Zealand, as 'unconscious', as though the officers' involved are unaware of their bias and racism, then you are guilty of three things; first of taking the piss out of the New Zealand public. I don't believe for one moment that those working on NZ Police National Headquarters in Wellington actually believe this 'theory'. Secondly, you are guilty of contributing to all the bullshit that Professor Franklin states is spread throughout society. Furthermore, in my view you are guilty in this instance of providing a significant contribution to the total amount spread across New Zealand. 

And thirdly, you are guilty of treating the public with disrespect because it is obvious that the term 'unconscious bias' is being used as a cynical ploy to move discussion away from the fact that racism exists within the NZ Police, and that you are not serious about dealing with the issue. It is my contention that you won't be able to do anything concrete about the kinds of attitudes that led, for example, to the appalling conduct of police during the so-called terrorism raids on the Tuhoe Nation in 2007, until you admit you have a problem, and refer to it by its correct term... racism, which in turn manifests itself in bias conduct.    

Jarrod Gilbert, Academic Freedom and Yet More Police Bullshit
And now sadly on to yet more bullshit from the NZ Police. 

Just before the NZ Police Commissioner's confession of 'unconscious bias' towards Maori, we witnessed an example of solid, conscious bias on the part of some members of the NZ Police towards a member of the academy. This came about after Dr Jarrod Gilbert, criminologist and researcher, revealed that officials at NZ Police Head Quarters in Wellington, had designated him unsafe to do research on policing matters because of his 'association with gangs'. 

In order to provide some context: Dr Gilbert successfully completed a PhD on gangs in New Zealand, during which he hung out with gang members and interviewed some in order to gather data to inform his thesis. His PhD material formed the basis of a a book published in 2013 Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand. So, Dr Gilbert's research involvement with gangs is well known, and it would be especially well known to the NZ Police. So, why just recently was he designated as unsuitable to do research? Going on information provided publically by Dr Gilbert to date it appears that he and five colleagues were carrying out a research project on alcohol-related harms, and only required "basic crime data". This is hardly research one would expect NZ Police to be concerned about. In fact, given their stated aim of reducing crime, one would think they would welcome research that might enhance policy making:

Fat chance if they are not actually in control of research.

There is so much that is wrong with the conduct of NZ Police in relation to this matter that is difficult to know which issue to focus on.  So instead I thought I'd finish this section by posing a few questions for the NZ Police to consider:
  • I've read a lot of the 'research' that comes out of Police National Headquarters; given the dubious quality of the work, the almost entirely untheoretical, descriptive, biased (towards police, obviously) nature of it,what makes you believe you are in any position to decide on the suitability/unsuitability of independent researchers?
  • where do you get off deciding who can/cannot have access to data that is in fact 'public property'? The data you collect is paid for out of the public purse, and your agency must adhere to the Official Information Act. It is true that government agency's have a responsibility to protect the privacy of individuals for whom it gathers and holds data, but in the case of Dr Gilbert and his colleagues research the data required had no significant privacy issues attached - although in my experience this does not stop government agencies from using this as a 'catch all' reason to block research they don't like, or can't control. And
  • has the person(s) who wrote the NZ Police research contract designed to make researchers hand over drafts and provide NZ Police the right to alter findings its members believe are negative, unacceptable etc, been fired?  Even more importantly, has the senior manager who signed off on the design and implementation of the research contract been fired? Because any idiot with half a brain would have anticipated that the first time it was used to block a prominent academic from carrying out research, one not afraid to expose it, would result in NZ Police looking like a bunch of bullying control freaks. And since the said author/manager clearly didn't know this, they should be fired so they no longer drain the public purse with their stupidity.
In the end it all appears to have worked out well: NZ Police withdrew their designation of Dr Gilbert as an unfit researcher, and they actually apologised to him. It also appears that the draconian research contract they expected all researchers to sign, one that gave them veto rights over content and release of research, is 'being reviewed'. This is a good result all round. At a personal level I was especially happy with how things panned out as Maori criminologist Rob Webb and I are planning a major research project into policing of Maori to start in late 2017. Depending on the methodology, which we have yet to develop, we may or may not require access to police-held crime data. I have had in the past a lot of engagement with gangs through my work as a policy adviser at Te Puni Kokiri, and my boss for some of that time was Harry Tam, a life-time patched member of the Mongrel Mob. At present I have cousins in the Mob and some who were past members of the Black Power, all of whom I have associated with at family functions. I've done research with inmates, ex-inmates, and I have family members who have long criminal histories, and with whom I regularly 'associate'. In other words under the research regime used to block Dr Gilbert, NZ Police would have had a long list of 'associations' that could have been used block my accessing data to carry out research. By standing up to the NZ Police and his right to do research, Dr Gilbert has done people like myself a huge service; I owe him a beer. 

The Bullshit Artist of the Year Award 2015
The conduct of the NZ Police Commissioner for claiming that unconscious bias explains bias in policing, and his senior officials responsible for the indefensible decision to blacklist Jarrod Gilbert, is so indescribably unethical and/or dumb that I am forced to resurrect my bullshit artist of the year award after a three year hiatus. But who to award it to? Unfortunately I am not (yet) in possession of the names of the officials responsible for the manipulative NZ Police research strategy, so I've decided to give the award to to everyone who works there: the official winners of the Indigenous Criminologist Bullshit Artist of the Year award for 2015 - New Zealand Police National Headquarters, for outstanding contributions to the development and dissemination of bullshit.

And finally...
In response to the senior criminologist who recently claimed that post-colonial and counter-colonial criminologists and their research "romanticises the Other" (meaning that it represents Indigenous/African American 'culture' in purely romantic, idealised ways): it could be argued that some of the material published by Indigenous scholars and activists during the first throes of cultural renaissance and the era of Indigenous political radicalisation (1970-1990) did at times focus on the positives of Indigenous culture at the expense of thorough analysis of some of the more troubling practices and beliefs (the gender bias in speaking rights within Maoridom being one). Anyone well versed in the literature on the radicalisation of Indigenous politics will know that this strategy was deployed purposefully, as a counter to decades we had to put up with white privileged assholes denigrating Indigenous culture. In response, Indigenous activists and intellectuals developed comparative frameworks of Indigenous/White-western culture that purposefully emphasised the positive elements of our culture, while highlighting the negative beliefs and practices of the so-called master race.  

However, as someone who has worked in this area for over 20 years, I found the description of the work we do today as 'romanticising the other', puzzling. While this kind of comment might have had some validity up till the early 1990s, it certainly does not apply to the majority of the work done over the past 20 years. 

While I cannot claim to have read ALL the material published by Indigenous criminologists, counter-colonial and post-colonial theorists, I've certainly read a lot of it. Therefore, with some confidence I can state that you will find very little that has been published recently that can be described as 'romanticising the other'. Certainly you won't find it in the work of Biko Agozino, Tamari Kitossa, Tracey McIntosh, Rob Webb or indeed my own work. What you will find is a lot of sophisticated, theoretically informed discussions of the crime and justice issues facing Indigenous and African-American communities. Some of our work deploys complex intersectional analysis of critical issues such as the high levels of domestic violence in our communities. However, unlike so much of 'western' criminology, we also include critical analysis of the impact of colonialism and racism within the government policy process.  

It seems to me that the representation of the Post/Indigenous/Counter-Colonial criminologies as 'romanticising the other' does not reflect the work that we as a scholarly community are carrying out. Instead, I believe it is more accurate to use this statement to describe a lot of the work of mainstream criminology in Australasia. It is especially apt for describing the attitudes and work of numerous Australasian criminologists who believe they can actually understand a community (such as Indigenous peoples) from the comfort of their office, and make claims about Indigenous scholarship without engaged with it thoroughly.  

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