Wednesday, 16 March 2016

NZ Police National Headquarters - The Gift that Keeps on Giving.

As an Indigenous researcher and blogger I have to say that right now it feels like the officials who work at New Zealand Police National Headquarters are the gift that just keeps on giving.

The past 10 months or so have been an absolute delight for someone like me: so much material, so much (un)intentional humour from the boys and girls in blue, starting with the Police Commissioners attempt at Pythonesque humour with a self-penned sketch called 'their is no racism in the New Zealand Police Force', followed by his wonderful, Ricky Gervais inspired follow up 'Police bias and racism is unconscious' - a truly cringe-invoking performance if ever there was one.  All of it trumped just recently by the ensemble masterpiece 'lets screw over the criminologist Jarrod Gilbert and stop him from doing research because he once did research on gangs'; a piece so subtle in its brilliance that it took us weeks to realise it was comedy. 

And now, we have yet another attempt, this time from the ethnic policy bods at National Headquarters, a wonderful entry titled 'packing the sh*ts with research that makes us look bad'.

Sadly, if I was asked to rank the four entries in the NZ Police Comedy Sketch competition, the most recent attempt would be last, only because it lacks originality; it is a rehash of an old script that NZ Police dust off and update if and when someone publishes research that is critical of them, or exposes the racism that permeates its ranks.  Let me provide just two examples of this sketch I observed during my time working in New Zealand's policy sector:

Observation 1: Research into the effectiveness of youth justice.  In the early 2000s the then Criminology Research Unit of Victoria University, Wellington, was completing a 'evaluation' of youth justice practise in New Zealand.  In the preliminary findings researchers issues with the way police officers were making discretionary decisions regarding youth offenders.  The response?  Significant bitching, moaning by NZ Police officials, and significant pressure brought to bear on officials from the lead agency, the Ministry of Social Development, and the researchers to 'dumb down' or remove the findings.

Observation 2: Maori Perceptions of Police.  A couple of years before the Victoria University project (1998-1999 to be precise), the Ministry of Maori Development and Police had commissioned the same crowd to carry out research on Police and Maori perceptions of each other.  The Police perceptions of Maori component was carried out by Victoria University researchers, the Maori Perceptions of Police component, by two independent Maori researchers.  The draft report of the Maori researchers contained a significant number of negative experiences of police contact reported by Maori research participants, especially by transgender Maori. Experiences they described as racist, bullying and so forth.  Officials at Police National HQ were unhappy, to put it mildly, and wanted the material removed.  They also requested that the names and contact details of research participants who made such claims to be handed over to them for 'investigation'.  When the researchers rightly refused because to do so was breach the ethics protocols for the project, they were bullied, with comments made about warrants being served and them being forced to hand over confidential research materials. 

In the end, nothing came of the threats, mainly because officials rightly thought that the findings would never be published as they had a major say in whether it ever saw light of day.  Sadly for them it did, due mainly to National losing the 1999 election, and managers at the Ministry of Maori Development deciding to be brave.  And so we wrote up a summary of the Maori report, placed it in front of the outgoing Minister of Maori Affairs, Tau Henare, who, bless him, said 'publish and be damned', and signed it off for publication.  And right through the publication process we had to put up with the most inane excuses from Police officials trying to stop the process.  Their two main rationale?  First, that we shouldn't include any 'criticisms' of police conduct that had not been formally reported to them and investigated by them, and secondly, because the methodology was 'unsound', which was quickly made redundant when we showed them they had signed off on the research methodology two years previously.

This now brings me to the latest iteration of the 'packing the sh*ts with research that makes us look bad' sketch:

A couple of weeks ago I read the NZ Police response to the report African Youth Experiences of Policing and the New Zealand Justice System (available via, that was based on a joint project between researchers at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand and members of the wider African community. 

The press statement released by New Zealand Police officials is a classic example of how research findings that reflect badly on a government agency, in this instance the police, are dealt with. First, the police spokesperson attempts  (very badly) to call into question the validity of the research findings, referring to issues with police conduct as 'unsubstantiated'. And how exactly should they be substantiated?  In exactly the same way they thought the findings of the Maori Perceptions of Police findings should be substantiated way back in the late 1990s; by the issues raised by research participants being handed over to the police to investigate.

That's right, racist/unethical or inappropriate conduct by police being investigated by the police so that the research findings be accepted as valid and 'substantiated'.

I am calling bullsh&t on this.

If we follow this piece of self-serving logic then no research on community experiences of policing would ever be accepted as valid, as worthy of discussion, as necessary for informing the development of policy, unless your organisation can 'substantiate' the findings.  Why is that argument bullsh&t?  Well, quite simply because over the years we have seen what happens when the New Zealand Police investigate their own. What are the chances that the process will be fair and impartial? Fat chance.

Secondly,  as with the two observations outlined above, officials resort to using facetious terminology to describe facts or information they don't like.  In this instance referring to the reports findings as 'generalised', which I am guessing means 'not specific or substantiated'.  Hopefully the officials concerned are not claiming that the authors of the report are making 'generalisable' findings, meaning that the experiences included in their report is applicable to ALL African youth, because they certainly do not make that claim. But it doesn't really matter what the term 'generalised' is meant to mean, it is the fact that it is cloaked between '...' which is important.  Why? Because in presenting the term in this way the author is trying to convey to the reader that the 'thing' being written about, a critical research project on policing, is somehow not to be trusted or taken seriously... just like the media statement released by New Zealand Police.

Furthermore, and this is where the press release rolls into farce, it is claimed that the experiences reported by the research participants are 'at odds' with the wonderful, positive feedback New Zealand Police receive from the stakeholders they deal with across various African communities.

Just a couple of points and questions on that gem; firstly,  is the fact that some people in the community are happy with your performance, and I am sure some are, 'generalisable' to ALL peoples experiences in these communities? Do these positive reports override the negative experiences of African youth?  In other words, are the only 'legitimate', 'substantiated' claims those that make you look good or feel good about yourselves?

Secondly, you seem to be surprised that independent research findings report something different to what your mates have been telling you. Really? I'd have thought you'd be used to it by now as almost every piece of independent research on police engagement with Maori and other communities tends to show exactly the same thing - a whole bunch of people saying things that contradict the experiences New Zealand Police like to report in their glossy marketing material and press releases.

And lastly, the fact that some people are happy with you doesn't nullify the negative experiences of others.  So how about a change in attitude and instead of making the same old boring, bullsh&t excuses you like to roll out to avoid having to deal with the racist attitudes and conduct of some of your colleagues, why not 'man/women' up, stop making excuses to avoid the issue and do something meaningful to rectify the situation.

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