As with the rest of the world, the New Zealand Police are under increased scrutiny at the moment. This played a part in Tuesday’s decision to scrap plans to arm some officers with automatic firearms. The new Police Commissioner Andrew Coster read the public mood correctly, explaining that the Armed Response Teams “do not align with the style of policing that New Zealanders expect”.
Although this is a setback for those in the police who want to see greater militarisation, officers will continue to have Glock pistols and rifles in patrol cars, and carry tasers.
In fact, a shift to greater offensive capacity has taken place over decades, with little political debate and increasingly lethal consequences. A 2017 investigation found the Police had shot nearly as many people in the previous decade than in the whole century before this. And since then, shootings have increased. Even in the last seven months, there have been four fatal shootings by Police.
A disproportionate number of those killed are Māori and Pasifika, who have made up two-thirds of all victims over the last decade. Clearly, policing in this country has a problem with race. There is a long history of police heavy-handedness, to say the least, with Māori. Other populations the state has needed to control – especially the poor, unionised workers, political activists, and those who have challenged or broken conservative moral codes (especially relating to gender and sexuality) – have also felt the heaviest hand of the law.
Despite this history, survey results regularly show New Zealanders trust police officers more than just about any other profession.
Even for Māori, trust in the Police is high. The latest survey work released in November showed that while 79% of the public have trust and confidence in the police, for Māori although it’s lower, it’s not significantly so, at 70%. And Māori confidence in the Police has been rising.
The standing of the Police has, at times, been in serious question. Perhaps never more so than after the Operation Eight raids of 2007 when police used anti-terrorism laws to carry out a botched raid on Māori and anarchist communities, which led to significant protests around the country.
Such blackmarks against the Police have sped up modernisation efforts in the force. These days, the strong arm of the state in Aotearoa seeks to ally with community leaders of historically oppressed populations, and this is paying dividends for the reputation of the police.
When Māori activists and iwi leaders set up roadblocks in some provincial areas during the recent lockdown, asserting their need to control the flow of people and the virus, the Police chose to work with them and avoid confrontation, despite demands from some Opposition politicians to deal with what they perceived to be unlawful and provocative challenges to the state and society.
Activists even ended up travelling with Police in patrol cars. This cooperation was lauded by many, including the Human Rights Commission, as a new bicultural model of policing that could be extended to other parts of society. Others suspected that it co-opted Māori leadership, blunting future scrutiny of police functions.
This bicultural commitment was also evident at Ihumātao. A video of a police officer singing a waiata with protesters went viral, and when tensions rose, the police were on the end of racial abuse, with one officer of colour being told to “f..k off back to your own country”.
Some of the changes police are making have been labelled superficial, such as the branding of their cars with “Pirihimana”. Yet the force has also adopted strategies for dealing with traditionally oppressed parts of the community, sometimes with radical affect.
For example, as part of the “Turning of The Tide” or “Te Huringa o Te Tai” strategy for reducing negative Māori statistics, guidelines were released a few years ago instructing officers not to give tickets to young Māori drivers caught without a license, but instead refer them for training so they could get the missing licence.
The makeup of the force is also changing relatively fast, with the old-fashioned image of the police force as being conservative, male and white, fading. The modern police officer is increasingly likely to be tattooed, female, gay, and brown. Current policy is to improve recruitment for Māori from 18% to 25%, and for women from 37% to 50%.
Police are also regular attendees at LGBTQ+ parades, where they have marched in support, and have a rainbow police car to show their solidarity. Essentially, the face of the modern police force is now woke.
Even the recent armed patrols trial was done in the context of the massacre of Muslims in Christchurch, with the Police promoting it on the basis that arming of officers could help protect vulnerable ethnic minorities. It was a good example of how the Police agenda to be both more woke and more militarised has worked in lockstep.
The Armed Response Teams have been abandoned, but the Police remain armed – and all evidence suggests high levels of shootings and killings will continue.
Politicians are very reluctant to push back these military aspects of policing. The Government has been very clear that they regard the arming of police as an “operational” issue for Police bosses to decide. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues continue to push the line that they favour the Police remaining “generally unarmed”, leaving a lot of room for lethal capacity.
The enormous effort going into reforming the police force has undoubtedly headed off the type of hostility and anger we see directed at US police forces at the moment. However, if the trend towards more and more Māori, in particular, being killed at the hands of police continues, no amount of modernisation will make up for this brutal reality.
Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.