Racial stereotyping by police ‘systemic, institutionalised’: Race Relations Commissioner

The Race Relations Commissioner has accused police of “systemic and institutionalised” racial stereotyping following revelations about the tactical use of pain on Māori suspects.

Meng Foon is calling for an overhaul of police culture to weed out racism, while the Māori Party wants mandatory use of body cameras to scrutinise police officers’ actions and prevent racial profiling.

A Herald investigation has revealed that police are more likely to use pain to subdue Māori suspects when applying handcuffs than for other ethnicities.

Foon said he was alarmed by the findings and planned to raise the matter directly with Police Minister Poto Williams next week.

“Even former Police Commissioner Mike Bush admitted there were issues of [police] not being a safe place for Māori, Pacific and coloured people.

“These statistics and the wider societal issues raised here are very concerning.

“It’s systemic and institutionalised.

“As tangata whenua, Māori have rights under Tiriti o Waitangi and domestic and international human rights laws to be safe, free from cruel, degrading, and disproportionately severe treatment, and free from discrimination in their interactions with police and the justice system.”

Foon said the pain statistics indicated current policies and systems were not working for Māori.

He wanted Poto Williams to “take notice and do something about it”.

“I’d like to see that she will ensure there is positive movement in police culture – that they will ensure there is less unconscious bias or stereotyping.”

Figures provided by police show Māori – who make up 16.5 per cent of the population and 42 per cent of people charged with an offence – are subjected to painful force at a higher rate than other offenders – accounting for 49 per cent of such cases.

However, police bosses are rejecting “inflammatory” claims of racism, insisting that while officers often deal with violent or disturbed offenders, force is always a last resort.

Waipareira Trust CEO and former MP John Tamihere said the pain compliance figures werelikely to be under-reported by frontline police.

Māori were routinely racially profiled, he told the Herald.

“I’ve been subject to it myself.”

The over-policing of Māori communities for low-level crimes like driving offences along with unnecessary violence by police created growing tensions and mistrust, Tamihere warned.

“When you over-police on dumb crimes, tensions grow because you know you’re being targeted because you’re brown.”

While senior police officers were more experienced, many younger officers were more like “Starsky & Hutch” – and quicker to resort to battons, pepper spray or Tasers, Tamihere said.

“At times and situations you have to use those sanctions. But they’re not go-to tools straight away.

“Cops can still stop you but it’s the way they work you over.”

But Tamihere had sympathy for police who were left to deal with many mentally disturbed offenders with addiction problems who should be receiving proper mental health care.

Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said Māori were more likely to be racially profiled, wrongfully accused and unfairly sentenced.

His party was campaigning to legislate the police code of ethics and require police to wear body cameras to scrutinise them on duty.

Waititi also hit back at “flippant” comments by the Police Association that Māori were more likely to commit violent offending.

“Therein lies the very issue within the police. They are very quick to stereotype Māori by their look, and therefore their behaviour.”

Williams said she had received a briefing on the issue.

“The figures reported earlier this week paint a stark picture. Māori are over-represented in all aspects of the criminal justice system. We know this. And more absolutely needs to be done to address this.

“I would note that there is already significant work underway – including Te Huringa o Te Tai, the police’s Māori strategy which aims to reduce the overrepresentation of Māori in the criminal justice system. As well as the ongoing success of the co-design model of Te Pae Oranga or iwi panels, which have led to the reduction of harm caused by reoffending by 22.5 per cent.

“But there is much more to do. And I will continue to work with the Police Commissioner on tackling the overrepresentation of Māori in the criminal justice system, as well as ensuring the police are mindful of the significant powers granted to them, and that their use of force is always proportional to the situation at hand.”

A spokeswoman for police said officers used pain compliance in response to a suspect’s behaviour.

“Police do not use pain compliance based on ethnicity. The use of force is always a last resort.”

Police were trained to use a tactical options framework which provided guidance on using force that was “necessary and proportionate” to the circumstances.

Police were monitoring the use of body cameras by other agencies for any potential benefits, but had no plans for their immediate introduction.

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