16 Mar 2021

Police launch investigation into 'unconscious bias' against Māori

12:01 pm on 16 March 2021

Police are investigating whether they have unconscious bias against Māori, but won't say it is an inquiry into racism.

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Police commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Police have launched a long-term research project with Te Puna Haumaru NZ Institute for Security and Crime Science at the University of Waikato, looking at how to ensure everyone is getting fair treatment.

Titled "Understanding Policing Delivery", the study will focus on examining where bias may exist within police policies, processes, and practices, according to a media statement.

When police commissioner Andrew Coster was asked by Morning Report if unconscious bias just meant racism, he said: "We have to be careful about labels, because that ends up being some of the talking past each other. Unconscious bias affects every individual and can lead to us doing things we don't intend".

"When we are talking about policing, we are actually talking about what are the outcomes that all of policing are leading to and are they fair an equitable for all people. And that might relate to an individual but actually more likely to relate to systems and processes and practices," Coster said.

Part of the challenge was that people "use the word racism to mean different things", he said.

"If you say racism to our officers, they will feel like we are calling them individually racist. Whereas a lot of the advocates in this area, when they use the word racism, they are talking about a system that consistently gets worse outcomes for one group of people than another."

Coster was asked by Morning Report: "You're talking about unconscious bias in the form of racism, aren't you? You're not talking about unconscious bias in any other forum in particular, are you?"

"Unconscious bias is a narrow topic that's about individuals and how they see and view the world and make decisions, but bias more broadly looks at the impact of an organisation as a whole," Coster said.

When challenged that it seemed he was "dressing it up using something that sounded slightly less offensive", he said: "I'm trying to find language that is sufficiently neutral that allows us to look at this problem objectively rather than carrying the emotion that actually prevents people from engaging".

He denied that was whitewashing.

"We can use whatever language we like but in the end, what we need to have is an objective understanding of the issues in order to be able to shift them. What I have found is that when I lead conversations on this inside the organisation, people are looking for the facts and evidence to understand the issues so we can deal with it appropriately.

"If we can't find common ground on this, then we will be talking past each other for the next decade and that will not shift the problem."

Finding some common ground

Coster said it was a topic that had "very emotive opinions on either side".

"What we need to find here is some common ground so we're able to have some sensible conversation about the issue. Police recognises that it has a part to play in tackling these issues, we need to be able to do that from a strong evidence base.

"The part of the challenge here is the tendency to start with raw statistics and those statistics will tell a devastating story for Māori in terms of criminal justice. Police's part in that needs more examination. We have a range of challenges that occur upstream of policing that can lead to poor outcomes for Māori. We need to understand what our part of it is and it we can get that in sight we can have a conversation about the right way to shift it."

The statistics did not tell the whole story, in Coster's view, because the need for policing was the "consequence of many other troubles".

They included family violence, mental health, drugs, alcohol or other issues.

"The starting point is poor. We need to understand if police is making that worse and if so, in what ways so that we can shift it. Our people come to work to do a great job. And they do a great job, so tackling this in a way that respects the intent our people but also owns the problem is part of what research will help us do."

If issues were raised during the research, then police needed to make change, Coster said.

"We are not waiting though, there are already areas where we are working in terms of looking to shift outcomes in terms of Māori."

The research had been "in design for a little while now" and had come together in the past few weeks, Coster said.

The research

Dr Kim Workman

Sir Kim Workman KNZM QSO will chair the external reference group. Photo: Dr Kim Workman

The study will focus not just on front-line police staff and their interactions, but also on policy, training, and deployment.

Criminal justice advocate Sir Kim Workman KNZM QSO will chair the external reference group to provide expert, independent, academic, cultural and community advice to the research programme.

In a statement issued by police, he said: "As a critic of the criminal justice system on the issue of bias for the last 20 years, I welcome this project as a watershed moment.

"This project is a positive step forward and a unique opportunity for the community to co-operate in a way that assists this work.

"I commend the Police Commissioner and Police Executive for their leadership on this topic within their organisation and the community and I look forward to chairing the voice of the community as part of this work."

Coster said police would continue other efforts to ensure objectivity.

Photographing young rangatahi

RNZ recently revealed officers were approaching Māori youths who had done nothing wrong and photographing them.

There were three areas at risk of bias in policing, Coster said.

"Who we stop and speak to, how we use force, and how we seek prosecutions. There are other areas but those are the ones that really stick out, and when you look at the raw statistics, those are the areas where the outcomes are worst for Māori."

The issue of police stopping young rangatahi and photographing them came under the subject of who police stopped, Coster said.

"We are obviously looking at that issue completely separately and the IPCA is and the [children's] commissioner is, so there's actually a number of pieces of work urgently looking into [that].

"The broader topic of who we stop and speak to is a really important one. Community has high expectations of what police will do to prevent crime and there's an important conversation to be had of what the trade-offs are in that area."

Coster said he had told police that stopping and photographing rangatahi was not appropriate, but did not say it had stopped altogether.

"Police carry on doing our business in terms of preventing crime and the balance that we have to strike there is when is it appropriate for us to stop and speak to somebody ... in a preventative context, recognising that is not an exact science."

In any case where police were aware of photos being taken inappropriately, the images had been deleted, Coster said.

"We do need people to come forward, though, to understand that ... we will do our best to interrogate our system to see whether there are pictures there that shouldn't have been taken and that's a piece of work that we have underway."

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