Thursday, 14 July 2016

Gangs and the Politics of Crime Control Policy in New Zealand

A while back I wrote a couple of blogs that contained commentary on the short-sightedness and the condescension that underpins the crime control policy sector in New Zealand when it comes to gangs and development 'effective interventions' (see A Commentary on the Stage Management of Policy Consultation and Policy Development, and Is New Zealand's Policy Sector Evidence-Based, Part 2). Recent events in New Zealand show that another discussion on this issue is necessary. So here goes, and my apologies for repeating some of the points included in the previous blogs:

The Minister of Corrections, gangs and rehabilitation
Recently, the Minister of Corrections in the New Zealand government, Judith Collins, called for a particular individual, Ngapari Nui, to be removed from his position as Kaiwhakamana, a volunteer position through which he worked with inmates in Whanganui prison to assist them to prepare for life outside prisons walls.  Mr Nui had been functioning in this role for five years.

Before I begin my critique on the recent behaviour of Ms Collins, and the Chief Executive of Corrections, Ray Smith, it is worthwhile revisiting a statement I made about the policy response to gangs in a previous blog:

"I have exposed that an unwritten rule of government agencies in New Zealand is that they 'don't work with gangs', which also means that officials cannot be seen to engage with gang members. Of course this rule is unwritten, and its application is, as always, contingent upon specific events and the attitudes of individual government officials. For example, the late, former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was well known for his willingness to engage with gang leaders, and indeed supported the development and implementation of labour schemes for gangs. Similarly, the ex-Minister of Maori Affairs, Pita Sharples was not shy about engaging with gangs, or attending community forums where it was known they would be attending. And of course Te Puni Kokiri, as the lead government adviser on Maori issues, would also seek to engage with gangs to inform the development of social policy; although I wonder how long this enlightened approach to policy development will last at the Ministry now that Harry Tam no longer works there... my guess is, not long. During my time at the Ministry it became increasingly obvious that most of its tertiary educated, middle class Maori analysts had much more in common with their white counterparts at Treasury than they did with working class Maori, and were no more willing to, or better at, engaging with 'hard to reach' communities like gangs or youth offenders. And so, as a general rule Ministers of the Crown and government officials avoid engaging with gang members at all costs, even when, in the case of Ministry of Social Development officials, they are actually tasked with developing and implementing a 'gang strategy'!"

Ms Collins recent behaviour directly mirrors the conduct of the policy sector described above, and the core principle that forms the basis of it; that meaningful engagement with gangs to inform policy is a no no.  The same goes for Ray Smith, Chief Executive of Corrections, behaviour as he moves to support and implement the directives of his minister.

I agree with Harry Tam's recent statement that after being dropped from Cabinet for questionable behaviour, Collins is using the 'ban the gangs' rhetoric and related behaviour such as having gang affiliated individuals removed from volunteer positions in prisons to 'prove' herself again; to show how tough she is. In my view she is doing so at the expense of the delivery of meaningful support for inmates.

In fact, I contend that the Minister's recent, frothy exhortation that the only place for gang members in prisons is as inmates underlines the key argument I made in the blog mentioned above, that the claims of Corrections and other crime control policy shops in New Zealand to be 'evidence-based' is often a load of bullshit. Both the Minister's and the Chief Executive's conduct underlines the political, subjective, rhetorical foundations of the crime control policy sector in New Zealand. And it is important for us to recognise that this is the basis of crime control policy, especially if we are  interested in formulating nuanced understandings of why this particular policy sector does such a shite job at developing and implementing meaningful policies and interventions. For example, it is worth asking why the Department of Corrections can't get close to its stated aims of reducing reoffending rates amongst its 'clients' (10% when IOM was first introduced back in the 2000s, updated more recently to 20% plus... how's that going so far Ms Collins, Ray Smith?  Not even close, eh?). One reason might just possibly be a total disconnect on the part of the Minister, the Chief Executive and the policy arm of the department, from the individuals, whanau and communities they supposedly serve.

And Finally, A Disclosure
Readers should be aware when reading this blog that:
1. I currently have cousins who are members of the Mongrel Mob, and one of my uncles was once a member of the Black Power.
2. I worked for 2 years with a man who is a life-member of the Mongrel Mob, and
3. In my capacity as a policy analyst from 1999-2009 from time-to-time I engaged with gang members while working on projects.

Under the rather 'fluid' definitions of gang member' and 'gang associate' employed by the crime control sector in New Zealand, these 'facts' will come in handy when they contemplate how to respond to this blog (if they contemplate it at all, of course!). If they decided to respond, the tactics will likely be similar to those recently used by NZ Police to block researcher Jarrod Gilbert from carrying out research, by designating me as either a 'gang associate' or as having 'known gang associations', thereby rendering my stance, my comments 'questionable'.

You see, this is how things work in New Zealand's crime control sector: gangs and gang members are the bogie man/woman par excellence. You need to divert attention away from your agency's or your government's crap social policy performance?  Easy. Manufacture a moral panic about youth gang violence as government, police, policy makers and media did in the mid 2000s. Want to block someone from doing critical, independent research? Easy: make exaggerated claims of 'gang association or affiliation' as NZ Police did recently in order to stifle the work of criminologist and social researcher Jarrod Gilbert. Need to appear tough to your colleagues, the media  and uninformed, bigoted, dumbass voters? Not a problem: simply force the removal of men like Ngapari Nui from doing work that you, your advisors and your policy workers could not do, such as work with gang members and inmates to help turn them away from crime and prepare them for reintegration back into the community. Because Ms Collin's, the arrogance, the condescension, and the lack of policy smarts behind your comment that the only place in prisons for gang members is as inmates, is exposed by the very fact that at some point these same gang members will be (drum roll inserted here).... released!

As both Harry Tam and Edge Te Whaiti recently stated on national television in New Zealand, the reason why it is important to enable Ngapari Nui and others like him to work with gang members and other inmates, is because it is much easier for them to do so due to their social and familial affiliations and their knowledge and experience of the gang lifestyle. Based on my experience working in the policy sector, it is nigh-on impossible for the likes of Collins, Ray Smith or any of the crime control policy people currently sitting in cafes on Lambton Quay, Wellington to do the work that Harry, Edge and Ngapari choose to do (and with the ignorance and bias that many of the policy sector hold for Maori, offenders and gangs, nor would you want them to be doing that work).

Few of them would have the first clue how to engage with gang members or their whanau; a fact evident in the woeful standard of policy development across the entire New Zealand crime control sector. Even the most superficial reading of major policy projects undertaken since the late 1990s, such as RObM (Reoffending by Maori), The Crime Reduction Strategy, Effective Interventions and so on, quickly reveals the lack of capability the sector has for engaging meaningfully with 'communities of concern', like gangs, offenders, victims, service providers, Maori per se, etc, etc. 

And so, Ms Collin's and Mr Smith, how about you set aside your uninformed, ideologically-driven, unevidenced, prejudicial response to gangs and the people associated with them, and allow men like Ngapari Nui to get on with the job of helping inmates turn their lives around. How about putting aside your need to score meaningless political points, or to secure your fat yearly bonus, and work to develop effective responses to the significant issues facing our communities. What do you think... time for a mature policy response to gangs in New Zealand? That would be great, but given the current crop of politicians and senior public servants in New Zealand, I won't hold my breath.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Announcing the Maori Association of Social Science Bi-Annual Conference 2016

This years conference will take place at Victoria University of Wellington from the 9 to the 11 of November at T Herenga Waka Marae.
The conference theme is Nui to Korero: Rewriting National Narratives.

The conference registration rates have been set at:

Full registration - $250 (incl. conference dinner).
Student/community registration - $150 (incl. conference dinner).
Day registration - $85 (excl. conference dinner).
Abstracts close on Monday 5 September 2016 and should be 200-300 words. A link for abstracts will be made available soon - I will provide the link via my FB page when it comes through.

For conference queries contact Meegan Hall on

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Future of Indigenous Criminology?

What is in a name? Given criminology's role in the historical and contemporary subjugation of Indigenous peoples, the answer is 'everything'.

Recently, my colleague Chris Cunneen and I wrote a book called Indigenous Criminology, in which we discuss some useful principles upon which to build an Indigenous variant of the discipline. A full discussion of what an Indigenous criminology might look like is best discussed elsewhere. However, I can say with some certainty that it will not, or should not be primarily concerned with being 'of utility' to the policy industry. The fact that so much of what passes for Australasian Criminology is tethered firmly to the government teat (whether through contractual research contract arrangements, or that adherents often fail to ask critical questions of the institutions of crime control) belies the oft-made claim by practitioners that they are 'objective' in either the political or epistemological sense of the term.

They are not as they claim: the discipline and many of its adherents are 'political' by the fact that they prey on the bodies (theoretically, epistemologically and physically) of Indigenous peoples. They gorge on the wairua, the very essence of Indigenous peoples and their cultural context supposedly in the name of 'science', but more accurately for self-aggrandisement, and financial procurement for themselves and the academic institutions to which they belong.

In comparison, an Indigenous Criminology, or a Counter-Colonial Criminology, or an Anti-Authoritarian Criminology, whatever name you wish to give it, will be political in the sense that it will/should be part of the process through which Indigenous peoples seek self-determination. It will be an academic exercise undertaken with Indigenes, on their terms. It will privilege their voices and experiences. An Indigenous Criminology will be unaffected by the attitudes of the likes of Don Weatherburn and others and their fantastical belief that Australasian crime control and criminology has been too heavily focused on institutions and 'structure' re: Indigenous crime, and not enough on the 'individual indices' and causes of criminality. The 'individual' has a place in the Indigenous theoretical and research framework also, as do other 'units of measure' that facilitate understanding of social harm, such as family, community, gender and class.  But is it essential that a significant part of our activity focus on the institutions of oppression (Jackson, 1988), as Biko Agozino (2010: viii), in relation to the African context, writes:

"Since most of the crimes committed against Africa by imperialism are not crimes by isolated individuals but were structural wrongs orchestrated institutionally, the focus of African criminology is or should be on what is to be done about the unjust social institutions that have been used to facilitate genocidal policies for centuries".

Following Agozino's sage advice (2007: 3), an Indigenous Criminology should turn away from the historical, uncritical replication of western criminological practice. It should reject theories, research methods, crime control policies and interventions "that maximise the exploitation and repression of the masses". The emphasis of our criminological endeavour shall be (or should be) an aggressive form of academic activism, flavoured with an unflinching focus on state crimes in the historical and contemporary context of colonialism/neo-colonialism, seeking reparation for genocide (whether physical or cultural), revealing the rapacious behaviour of academics and globalised crime control corporations who seek to profit from Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous pain, "instead of following the Imperialist obsession with crimes of the poor" (Ibid).

We desperately need an Indigenous school of critical social inquiry that offsets the disempowering tendencies of the emerging globalising of contemporary crime control policy; a second phase of jurisdictional colonisation if you will (Tauri, 2014). Again, we turn to Agozino (2007: 3) who rationalises our need for self-determination in the criminological realm when he argues that:

"Criminologists in the Third World would make a greater impact by being sceptical of Western theories of punishment instead of agreeing with the Western scholars who, according to Cohen (1988) arrogantly boast that there is nothing to learn from the Third World and that all that needs be done is to apply the woefully failed theories of imperialist criminology to the rest of the world".

All is not lost though. There are those within Australasian criminology who we can work with and trust to behave ethically towards our communities - Chris Cunneen and Harry Blagg being two obvious examples. However, we should not forget that many of its practitioners have supported government policies and legislation that has delivered upon us more prison, more police violence and brutality, and more trauma.

In response I expect some of the practitioners will talk about how we would be better off being part of a public criminology, as opposed to becoming a boutique, sub-school of the discipline, or a fringe-dwelling, stone-throwing variant. I am certain that some of them will like nothing better than for us to add an Indigenous element to the discipline and work to 'correct it from within'. Unfortunately, given the pervasiveness of the paternalistic, colonising attitudes of the wider discipline, I fear that this approach is likely to become nothing more than the criminological equivalent of the state's indigenisation of youth justice, exemplified through the family group conference where we add a little 'colour' to the same tired old theories and methodologies, as opposed to the discipline taking a long, hard look at itself. Being part of an indigenisation program will allow many of the members of Australasian criminology to point to the Indigenous element, the 'add on' as 'proof' of their commitment to social justice, instead of focusing their attention on the significant overhaul that is required to cleanse it of the bias, racism and obstructive prejudice that currently pervades it.

Sadly, given the repetitiveness of the unethical, racist behaviour exhibited by some members of Australasian criminology that I and other Indigenous scholars have experienced over recent years, it is apparent to us that the discipline is not our friend. Nor is it likely to ever be. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that it might be better for us to walk away and leave the discipline's members to continue to stink up their own tent.

Agozino, A (2007) Power: An African Fractal Theory of Chaos, Crime, Violence and Healing, paper presented at the Salises 8th Annual Conference, University of West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago, 26 March.
Agozino, B (2010) What is Criminology?  A Control Freak Discipline! African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 4(1): I-xx.
Cunneen, C and Tauri, J (forthcoming) Indigenous Justice.  Bristol: Policy Press.
Jackson, M (1988) Maori and the Criminal Justice System: He Whaipaanga Hou: A New Perspective.  Wellington: Department of Justice.
Tauri, J (2014) Settler Colonialism, Criminal Justice and Indigenous Peoples, African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 8(1): 20-37.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Cultural Imperialism of Australasian Criminology

In a thought-provoking piece on the support her discipline gave to colonialism, Wendy James refers to anthropologists as ‘reluctant imperialists’, meaning that their support for the colonising enterprise was unplanned or unintentional.  James contends that any support was the result of anthropologists wanting to ‘do good’ by the colonised, and by doing so they inadvertently provided empirical support and intellectual sustenance for the colonial enterprise. Personally, I think that is a load of self-serving rubbish.  However, I am even more reluctant to accept similar arguments on behalf of criminologists, especially those who choose to support with the neo-colonial state, who avoid direct engagement with Indigenous peoples, and yet deem to speak with authority on ‘the Aboriginal/Indigenous problem’. 

Some Australasian criminologists might consider this position a little harsh. They might even attempt to argue that we should consider the contemporary situation facing the academy, the pressure of increasing class sizes, the continued retrenchment of teaching resources, and the impact of the managerialist movement and the commercialisation the academy over the past twenty years. All of which has resulted in significant expectation that academics will chase grant and contract funding. Undoubtedly, the recent hegemony of academic managerialism has had a demonstrable impact on the academy in New Zealand and Australia, especially as the primary source of external research grants for the social sciences is central government (Tauri, 2009). And so perhaps we shouldn't be too harsh on our hard-done-by criminologists if all they are doing is chasing the easy money, which is in the Australasian context, research that criminalises Indigenous peoples.  

However, what are we to make of the continued control-freak tendencies of Australasian criminology, especially its more authoritarian adaptations? It is far too easy to simply dismiss the recurrent focus on the individual native, someone divorced from their social, historical and structural context, as is often the case in the work of adherents like Marie (2010) and Weatherburn (2010; 2014), who then compound Indigenous subjugation by dismissing outright the validity of Indigenous forms of knowledge; and do so without demonstrating any meaningful engagement with it.  These actions, so common in Australasian  criminology, cannot be easily dismissed as 'accidental', unintentional incidents of cultural imperialism. These actions should be considered neo-colonial formulations of cultural imperialism, actions that have their antecedents in the technologies of social control utilised by colonial powers to subjugate Indigenous peoples (Tauri, 2014).

The tendency of some Australasian criminologists to ignore or misrepresent the Indigenous experience of crime control, or ignore the validity of Indigenous knowledge, whilst being blind to the racism and imperialistic tendencies of their own endeavours, has a long history in the discipline. It is a discipline that spends so much time with its nose stuck up the backside of the policy sector, and gazing with erotic fascination at the ‘Indigenous Other’ that it appears to have little time for self-contemplation; or as Biko Agozino (2010: i) puts it:

"... criminologists have routinely buried their heads in the snow of Europe and North America with hardly any serious attempt to understand the hieroglyphics of African (or any First Nation) reality except when they perceive threats to European comforts in the form of human trafficking, terrorism, piracy, dictatorships or the drugs trade".

The key to understanding Australasian criminology’s tendency towards extractive scholarship - let's call them the 'FIFO's of the academic world', as in 'fly in to Indigenous communities, extract data, then fly out and further their careers' - is that it is still very much an imperialist enterprise. Agozino (2003) describes imperialism as the exemplar form of all criminality since “every criminal act implies the violation of the spaces of others and attempts to colonise the spaces of the other and yet imperialism has the tendency to pose as the moral policeman of the world” (Agozino, 2010: ii-iii). In similar vein we might present much of the Australasian criminological musings on Indigenous peoples as imperialistic, due to the continued violation of the geographical and intellectual space of Indigenes, often without our permission, guidance or willing participation (Tauri, 2012). 

Perhaps Edward Said’s (2000: xxi-ii) critique of postmodern theory and “anti-foundationalist” positions can also be ascribed to Australasian criminology ,in as much the lack of attention to institutional classism, racism, structural, socio-economic impediments to a ‘a better life’ and individualistic focus of crime causation could only come from “minds so untroubled by and free of the immediate experience of the turbulence of war, ethnic cleansing, forced migration, and unhappy dislocation”. In the Australasian context we might add to the mix the lack of attention from so-called 'liberal' criminologists of the intergenerational impacts of colonial and neo-colonial policies such as the forced removal of children, stolen wages and the ghettoising of Indigenous peoples on reserves and in residential schools, the purposeful destruction of cultural practises and institutions and so forth.

With all this in mind, perhaps it is time to divorce ourselves from the abusive relationship wrought upon us by the discipline of criminology.

Agozino, B (2003) Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason.  London: Pluto Press.
Agozino, B (2010) What is Criminology?  A Control Freak Discipline?  African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 4(1): i-xx.
Marie, D (2010) Maori and Criminal Offending: A Critical Appraisal, Australian New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(2): 283-300.
Said, E (2000) Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.  Cambridge (MASS): Harvard University Press.
Tauri, J (2009) The Maori Social Science Academy and Evidence-Based Policy, MAI Review, online.
Tauri, J (2012)
Tauri, J (2014) Settler Colonialism, Criminal Justice and Indigenous Peoples, African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 8(1): 20-37.
Weatherburn, D (2010) Guest Editorial: Indigenous Violence, Australian New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(2): 197-198.
Weatherburn, D (2014) Arresting Incarceration: Pathways Out of Indigenous Imprisonment. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.


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.

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.