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October 4, 2015 | by  | in Features Splash |
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Coppers Become Croppers

On 29 September each year, the New Zealand Police encourage you to join them in celebrating Police Remembrance Day. The day of commemoration honours police from New Zealand, Australia, and the greater Pacific who have died in the line of duty, with a special focus on those who lost their lives in the previous year. Fortunately, so few police have died on duty that this year they decided to spice things up. This year marks the inclusion of the 38 New Zealand Police who have “died as a result of their duties” since the NZ Police’s inauguration in 1886. They were named and revered for committing the “ultimate sacrifice” in protecting the public good. These cops, we are told, represent the virtues police personify—valour, justice, loyalty, courage, conscientiousness—at their most pure. The only thing nobler than a cop is a dead cop.

The narrative of heroic cops is enduring, and for many—especially those who come from a position of privilege or largesse—it makes more than a modicum of sense. What could be more laudable than protecting our upstanding moral citizens from those who mean them harm? Sure, they might capitalise on the lure of adrenaline rushes and exhilaration to ensnare new recruits (“get better work stories”, anyone?) and fuck up every now and then (the Roastbusters debacle, it has to be said, wasn’t our country’s finest hour) but on the whole people are attracted to the profession because of its fundamental goodness, its commitment to principles of justice and compassion.

Consider now, if you will, every social development of the last century or so—the battle against segregation, Stonewall, Harvey Milk, the Māori Renaissance, Suffragettes, Occupy, the Springbok Tour, the miners’ strikes. Whose side were the police on? Find any photo of any of these demonstrations and you’ll find police on the side of the powerful, of the status quo; maybe if you’re lucky you’ll catch them out in act of police brutality. Why is this? Why have the police—our police—uniformly been on the wrong side of history, inevitably cast as the villain in historical reconstructions?

Our current justice system, from head to toe, branch to branch, isn’t about justice or fairness or nobility or bravery or progression. It’s about maintaining order. It’s not about progress. It’s about keeping things the same.

***

The first New Zealand policeman to die in the line of duty was Henry Porter, who drowned while doing his nightly rounds in Port Chalmers. He was probably drunk on the job. While technically he was the first member of the New Zealand Police to die on the job, he had forebears: the New Zealand Police Force emerged from another body named the “Armed Constabulary”, best known for fighting against Māori in the land wars and sacking Parihaka. This constabulary took their cues from the recently-developed Australian Police Force, whose brave work in slaughtering Aboriginal people is still commemorated during Police Remembrance Day in this, the year 2015.

The New Zealand Police, then, was founded on racism and blundering ineptitude. It is a legacy that is, by all indications, proudly continued to this day.

Let’s have a look at the stats: the latest government report indicates that a third of police acknowledge a higher propensity for suspicion of Māori and Pacific people, and that’s just those in the force who acknowledge it (we know from experience that racism is insidious and/or ignored). About 75 per cent reported hearing colleagues using racist language when describing suspects or apprehended persons. There has been a sustained failure to consult with Māori iwi groups to address this. Māori are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. Māori are twice as likely to be pulled over by the cops, an actuality you can witness on any given episode of Police Ten 7, a proud televised compendium of police abuse (“Sergeant Bloggs’ spider senses are tingling… something isn’t quite right here”).

The New Zealand Police was founded on racism and blundering ineptitude.

Māori and Pacific people are up to five times as likely to be charged with a crime as their Pakeha counterparts, depending on the offense—for crimes involving weed, it’s about four times the prosecution rate. They’re more likely to not have “adequate” legal representation. They’re more likely to be denied bail, leniency, monetary sentences or home detention. Non-white people are also the most likely to be at the receiving end of police violence. In 2013, 50 Pakeha were tased, many of them mentally ill; 165 Māori and Pasifika were tased in that same year. Pakeha make up 67.6 per cent of the total population. Draw your own conclusions.

Determining the ethnicity of people killed by police is much harder to gauge—the police don’t keep records or data on fatalities, which seems telling in itself—but earlier this year activist Sandra Dickson combed through troves of publically available data to ascertain that there are (at least) sixteen deaths by cop on record since 1995. Of these, she determined that nine were Māori, two were Pasifika, one was Iraqi. The other four are unknown.  

It isn’t just Māori who suffer unduly at the hands of police. Victoria University researcher Jan Jordan found that members of the police were more likely to sympathise with a rapist than with their victim, and discovered endemic victim blaming and tacit discouragement of victims to come forward, which is perhaps why of every one hundred rapes that occur in New Zealand, only four are prosecuted (and only one results in conviction).

This reared its head during the Roastbusters incident, which broke in 2013. A group of young men plied young women with alcohol, raped them, and bragged about their “conquests” on Facebook. The New Zealand Police released a statement claiming they were aware of the group and their nefarious activities, and had been for two years, but did not have enough evidence to convict because none of the young women had been “brave” enough to come forward. It turned out they weren’t being entirely honest, which here means “four women had come forward in 2011, only to be told they were asking for it and that the police didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute”, despite the fact the Roastbusters admitted to their crimes publicly and that the police could have—and according to an independent report, should have—nabbed them for statutory rape at the very least.

This report came after the historic sexual misconduct allegations: that three policeman had raped and sexually abused Louise Nicholas and other 16-year-olds, including inserting glass bottles into their vaginas. Despite the three admitting to the incident, with Assistant Commissioner Clint Rickards admitting “I’ve done things I’m not proud of”, they claimed the incident was consensual, despite the age difference and power discrepancy. While these factors don’t legally entail lack of consent, morally they’re indefensible. Unsurprisingly they were cleared, or Rickards was—the other two were already serving a sentence for pack-rape at the time of the hearings.

Because that’s the other thing: the justice system, and the Police especially, look after their own. Loyalty to their fellow officers is imbued in the Police’s ethos. This is, naturally, reflected in their conduct. There are reasons for this: Police feel victimised and loathed by many strata of society, and it’s always nice knowing someone has your back. This errant loyalty resulted in our current Police Commissioner Mike Bush delivering a eulogy describing fellow policeman Bruce Hutton as having “integrity beyond reproach”. Hutton was crooked, disgraced; the man Bush deified as “a man of great character” had perpetrated what the Royal Commission called “unspeakable outrages” when he planted evidence, leaving at least one innocent man imprisoned for nine years.

The justice system, and the Police especially, look after their own. Loyalty to their fellow officers is imbued in the Police’s ethos.

Also shitty: being a young person beholden to the police. Roastbusters shined a light on how young victims are ignored and lampooned as a matter of course, but a more recent event has proven illustrative in terms of how youth in police custody are treated. A sixteen-year-old girl from South Auckland, who can’t be named for legal reasons, was arrested and charged with common assault, resisting arrest, possession of utensils for cannabis and disorderly behaviour. Needless to say she was treated humanely, and CYFS and Police collaborated to ensure her emotional well-being for the purposes of restorative justice.

Psych!

Actually she was held in police cells for four days, where she was “terrified” the entire time—listening to “other prisoners scream through the night”. She refused food and drink so she wouldn’t have to use the bathroom publicly. Her only contact with the outside world was a daily visit with a case officer who was, again, responsible to the Police. Fortunately, they managed to find a bed for her—in Palmerston North, a day’s drive away from her support structure, whānau and tautoko. Uprooting young people from familiar structures while they’re dealing with the legal system is standard protocol for youth in the care of CYFS and the Police. The damage this does to formative brains has been proven deleterious.

Have the Police offered anything approximating an apology? Have they shit. Here’s what Police Inspector Rod Fraser had to say: “This is never an ideal situation for police as the police cells are designed for short-term adult accommodation with limited catering, showering and supplied bedding”. So really it was the Police that were inconvenienced, not the girl! They had to provide a bare minimum of humane standards for four whole days because of her! How dare she put out the people tasked with providing rehabilitative structures for her? Aww diddums :’(.

This culture of victim blaming and shirking responsibility, perhaps entrenched by the closed-ranks ethos of protectionism, functions as a means of erasing culpability. While a Police report in 2008 conceded that Māori offending was disproportionate because of the ill-effects of poverty, it ultimately ascribed it to “family and community structures” which “condoned and celebrated… violent culture”. This is, no pun intended, a cop-out. I don’t think acknowledging unconscious and structural biases elide personal responsibility, exactly, but if the cards are stacked to the extent they are, it becomes impossible to distinguish between “genuine arrest” and “unchecked racism”.

Meanwhile Police Chiefs and indeed our very own Police Commissioner deny there’s unconscious racism in the force in spite of screeds upon screeds of proof.

The argument that most cops are fundamentally good while a couple of bad apples spoil the bunch isn’t just incorrect, it’s inapposite. Yes, I’m sure your uncle who’s been a cop for twenty years is great, but we’re talking about the Police as an institution and culture. We’re also talking about fundamentally bad laws they’re duty-bound to enforce. A cop can be as pro-marijuana as they like, as anti-racist as they come, but they’ll still need to arrest the brown dude smoking a joint on Cuba Street because that is what they’ve sworn to do. They still have to hound “vagrants” (read: homeless people). They still have to harass protesters, even if the cause is as valid as they come.

What they don’t have to do is persecute a brown trans woman who had the temerity to protest their presence in a “gay pride parade” and got her arm broken by a security guard for her troubles; they don’t have to belittle and turn away rape victims; they don’t have to use excessive force while detaining homeless people on Queen Street. They still do it, but they don’t have to—right?

Here’s the harrowing thing, or, if viewed from a certain angle, the joke: this isn’t the Police making mistakes, or operating incorrectly. This is the Police operating as they’re meant to. This is an inevitability. This is socially sanctioned behaviour. The Police are meant to maintain order. Can we really blame them for doing it, internally and externally? Of course things don’t change, or ingrained cultures don’t dissipate just because the media—tentatively, always tentatively—wring them on the rack. They are a perfectly operational machine running exactly to specifications.

This isn’t the Police making mistakes, or operating incorrectly. This is the Police operating as they’re meant to.

Which makes the Chief of Police’s recent decision to arm all police officers with tasers and his continued, incessant insistence upon greater armament of police—including firearms—very worrying indeed, especially in the wake of two fatal, panicked police shootings. Sorry to rattle off a trite wee sound-bite, but instead of arming cops, we should be educating them, or even radically—radically—overhauling them from the foundations. If his continued activism goes to plan, we can expect greater police-on-civilian violence within the next year. Three guesses as to which ethnic minorities will bear the brunt of it.

***

Loathing cops is pretty easy, and they don’t exactly help themselves—remember that time they defended a TVNZ boss’ claims that Police Ten Seven satisfied Māori television quota? barred psychologists from undertaking further research after they revealed the rape culture inherent in the force? arrested Tiki Taane for inciting violence when he played “Fuck tha Police” live? They can’t handle the bantz.

But there’s an equally—if not more—insidious profession and institution that enables and enforces their malfeasance. This is one that I’m sure a lot more of you will be familiar with; those involved in the judiciary branch of government, or those who apply law. This mostly applies here to judges and lawyers.

This is harder to write, and I suspect the reason is elitism. Police are, literally, as well as figuratively, blue collar for the most part; lawyers are the epitome of white collar professionals, and as someone who attended a tertiary institution, I know more lawyers and lawyer-aspirants than I do cops. I’m even rather fond of some of them, and I want two of them to mentor me (Joe Nunweek and Diane White, pls return my calls). But if you have to justify a profession’s failings with “but not ALL x are like that”, it’s probably a strong indicator that something is structurally untenable with the profession. There might be good lawyers, like there might be good police people, but it’s irrelevant; and by all indications, “good” lawyers (not to be confused with “good lawyers”) are about one in a hundred.

Put it this way: no matter how incompetent and appallingly biased the police are, the courts theoretically provide a check on misuse of power—they have the power to impose lenient sentences, refuse to see cases, set fairer precedents. But once the Police have finished with you, their white-collar counterparts set the dimensions of the maze you run around in. You move from one fucked system to another, with a different structure and regulation but with the same net result.

Lawyers are legally—and “ethically”—required to give the best possible level of defense for their clients. This means that if they need to employ infelicitous societal narratives in their defense, they are duty-bound to do so. In some cases, they are paid hundreds of dollars an hour to perpetuate and capitalise on the grossest myths about rape and Māori and Pasifika culture.

For instance, in a society that erroneously endorses the “she was wearing a short dress, she was asking for it” myth, an easy way for defense lawyers to win their case is by asking a number of traumatic questions about the minutiae of a rape victim’s outfit; whether she consented to kissing; whether she made a false claim. The victim usually becomes distraught, which makes their arguments less convincing; jury members and judges are usually uninformed about myths about rape; and voila! You’ve cleared the client and humiliated the victim.

If you happen to be brown and go before the courts, good fucking luck getting a fair hearing. Judges and juries prosecute Māori and Pasifika peoples at disproportionate rates, although it’s hard to gauge how much racism goes into these decisions because Māori and Pasifika and indeed most people in poverty cannot afford “adequate” legal representation. In our adversarial judicial system—which, incidentally, excludes tikanga conceptions of justice—the question often isn’t “is the defendant guilty?”, but “whose argument is more compelling?”, which often translates to “who has the better lawyer?” The better a lawyer is, the more they cost, and the more remote they are to society’s most vulnerable. Then there’s the fact that, as mentioned, if you’re brown you are denied recourse to lenient penalties Pakeha take for granted—house arrest, fines. If you’re convicted, the slammer is nigh-on guaranteed.

If you happen to be brown and go before the courts, good fucking luck getting a fair hearing.

Adversarial legal systems are essentially structured in the same way as debates, which is no doubt why the profession attracts so many debaters. The purpose behind debating is—literally—turning complex, multifaceted social issues into a sport where the winner has a presumed moral and intellectual authority, depending on how well they express themselves according to a prescribed set of rules that encourages dispassionate, verbose discourse. Is it any wonder our courts are so alienating, presented in a dialect defendants can’t understand? When I said that the courts perpetuate social narratives, the notion of compelling arguments and decisions hefting a kind of objective moral weight is ingrained in our society. Our courts aren’t just in thrall to rape culture and racism; they signal that these are defensible.

Then you either go through the arduous process of recovering from a legally-sanctioned brutal inquisition at the hands of the courts, or you go to prison, where you lose the right to vote and smoke. You also risk inhumane treatment, which is consistent across the board and a slightly higher possibility if they relegate you to one owned by Serco. Then, hopefully, you get out, and the experience is finally over.

Jokes! Actually, because our justice system focuses on retribution and deterrence in lieu of rehabilitation, your time in prison is likely to lock you in a cycle of police arrest, conviction and—again—incarceration. 54 per cent of people who get out of prison in New Zealand return in the next twelve months. This excruciatingly high recidivism rate has enacted measures like the “three strikes” rule, which ups the “retribution” aspect of justice at the further expense of substantive rehabilitation and support when out of prison; our recidivism rates, shockingly, have remained the same since the law’s implementation. Welcome to the cycle of shit, where every stage is marked by manifest cruelty and injustice. Welcome to our legally sanctioned justice system.

***

Perhaps the most harrowing part of all this is that this diatribe appears in the “fuck the establishment” issue. It’s as good a place as any, of course, but it’s also demonstrative of the way ideas about comprehensive reform of our justice system are consigned to “radicalist” ideologies. Is there anything really that far-fetched or out there about wanting to employ an inquisitorial, rather than adversarial, court system? Why is the idea of abolishing prisons, dismantling them bar by bar, and substituting them for a model which focuses on rehabilitation and education so maverick?

If I can posit an idea (gonna do it anyway), it’s because the system has permeated our society to such an extent that any alternatives are perceived as unimaginable or impossible. It is also because the way these institutions need to be dismantled prove that “reform” or piecemeal checks and safeguards are not enough. What is required is a complete structural overhaul from the ground up. The system isn’t broken. It’s working. It’s wreaking havoc. The only solution is to implement a new system. Unfortunately, when structural power is relinquished to the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, these necessary changes are always going to be disrated.

Order has been maintained. Nothing is well.

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