Unconscious Bias, NZ Police and Bullshit

This commentary deals with two recent issues that arose in relation to the New Zealand Police (NZ Police): the first 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 New Zealand 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 (1982)

According to the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt (2005: 1) “[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 invariably 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.  Not that long ago he claimed there was no racism in the NZ Police. What he now says is that some police might treat people differently because individual 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 ‘it’ is. Listening to him talk on the TV show ‘The Nation’ in November, 2015, I got the impression that 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 their 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 analysis identified discrepancies in the application of powers by police.  The Commissioner reported that Maori are less likely to receive the largess of police discretion to warn, not arrest, and so forth (Harley, 2015; also O’Reilly, 2014). Employing the term ‘unconscious bias’ is useful for moving our focus away from the fact that NZ Police 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 on this claim.

Firstly, the Commissioner is conveniently ignoring three pieces of relevant research on police attitudes to Maori, the MRL attitudinal surveys of the mid-1990s (MRL, 1993; 1995), and Dr Mike Roguski and Pania Te Whaiti’s Maori Attitudes Towards Police and Victoria University’s criminology research units Police Attitudes Towards Maori project, a summary of which was published by New Zealand Police and Te Puni Kokiri in 2001. What this body of 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 Commissioner’s 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 Conduct Authority and its predecessor. Many of the complaints made by Maori and Pacifica Peoples relate to the alleged 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 are 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. 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 Courtenay Place on a Friday evening in 2008, as simply suffering from unconscious bias? If you try to excuse this type of conduct as ‘unconscious’, as though the officers involved are unaware of their bias and racism, then you are guilty of bullshit, and 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.

Jarrod Gilbert, Academic Freedom and Yet More Police Bullshit

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 HQ in Wellington had designated him unsafe to do research on policing matters because of his ‘association with gangs’ (Stuff, 2015).

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, to gather data to inform his thesis. His PhD material formed the basis of 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 New Zealand Police. So, why just recently was he designated as unsuitable to do research? Going on information provided publicly 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” (NZ Herald, 2015a). 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.

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 NZ Police National Headquarters; given 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 agencies 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 New Zealand Police research contract (designed to make researchers hand over drafts and provide New Zealand 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 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 (NZ Herald, 2015b). 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 me a huge service; I owe him a beer.

And finally…

In response to the senior criminologist who recently claimed at an international conference 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 where we had to put up with white privileged commentators, many employed in the academy, 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 (2003; 2004), Tamari Kitossa (2012; 2014), Tracey McIntosh (with Radojkovic, 2012), Rob Webb (2004) or indeed my own work (Tauri, 2012; 2014; 2016). What you will find though, 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 (for example, see Monture-Angus, 1999). However, unlike so much of ‘western’ criminology, we also include critical analysis of the impact of colonialism and racism within the government policy process (Cunneen and Tauri, 2016).

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 (see Agozino, 2004; 2007; Alfred and Corntassell, 2005; Jackson, 1990; Kitossa, 2012; Lee, 1997; Marker, 2003; Monture-Angus, 1999; Moyle, 2013; Victor, 2007). Instead, I believe it is more accurate to use this statement to describe a lot of the work of mainstream criminology in Australasia (for elaboration of this perspective see Cunneen and Tauri, 2016; Deckert, 2014; 2015; Tauri, 2014). 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; much like the criminologist who prompted this part of my commentary.

Juan Marcellus Tauri lectures in Criminology at the University of Wollongong, Australia. A previous version of this commentary first appeared on the blog ‘The Indigenous Criminologist’, 2 December 2015.


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Agozino, B (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.

Alfred, T and Corntassell, J (2005) Being Indigenous: Resurgences Against Contemporary Colonialism, Politics of Identity, IX: 597-614.

Black, M (1982) The Prevalence of Humbug, Philosophic Exchange, 13(1): article 4.

Cunneen, C and Tauri, J (2016) Indigenous Criminology. London: Policy Press.

Deckert, A. (2014) Neo-colonial Criminology: Quantifying the Silence, African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 8(1): 39-60.

Deckert, A (2015) Criminologists, Duct Tape, and Indigenous People: Quantifying the Use of Silencing Research Methods, International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, May: online.

Frankfurt, H (2005) On Bullshit. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Harley, A (2015) Commissioner: Police Addressing Bias in Maori Relations, Newshub via http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2015/11/commissioner-police-addressing-bias-in-maori-relations.html

Jackson, M (1990) Criminality and the Exclusion of Māori, in N. Cameron and S. Frances (eds), Essays on Criminal Law in New Zealand: Towards Reform. Wellington: Victoria University, pp 23-34.

Kitossa, T (2012) Criminology and Colonialism: Counter Colonial Criminology and the Canadian Context, Journal of Pan African Studies, 4(1): 204-226.

Kitossa, T (2014) Authoritarian Criminology and the Racial Profiling Debate in Canada: Scientism as Epistemic Violence, African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 8(1): 63-88.

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McIntosh, T and Radojkovic, L (2012) Exploring the Nature of the Intergenerational Transfer of Inequalities Experienced by Young Māori People in the Criminal Justice System, in D. Brown (ed), Indigenising Knowledge for Current and Future Generations. Auckland: Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga, pp. 38-48.

Monture-Angus, P (1999) Considering Colonialism and Oppression: Aboriginal Women, Justice and the ‘Theory’ of Decolonisation, Native Studies Review, 12(1): 63-94.

Moyle, P (2013) From Family Group Conferencing to Whanau Ora: Māori Social Workers Talk About their Experiences, unpublished Master’s thesis, Massey University.

MRL Research Group (1993) Public Attitudes Towards Policing.  MRL Research Group, Wellington.

MRL Research Group (1995) Public Attitudes Towards Policing.  MRL Research Group, Wellington.

NZ Herald (2015a) Dr Jarrod Gilbert: The Police Deem Me Unfit to Undertake Crime Research because I know Criminals. New Zealand Herald, 25 November.

NZ Herald (2015b) Police Apologise to Leading Academic Researcher Dr Jarrod Gilbert after Banning him from Accessing Police Data. NZ Herald, 30 November.

New Zealand Police and Te Puni Kokiri (2001) Challenging Perspectives: Police and Maori Attitudes Toward One Another. Wellington: New Zealand Police National Headquarters and Te Puni Kokiri.

O’Reilly, J (2014) A Review of Police and Iwi/Maori Relationships: Working Together to Reduce Offending and Victimisation among Maori. Wellington: New Zealand Police National Headquarters.

Stuff (2015) Calls for Police to Scrap ‘Censoring’ Contracts after Researcher Dr Jarrod Gilbert Banned. Stuff News. via http://i.stuff.co.nz/national/74381812/dr-jarrod-gilbert-police-trying-to-control-research.

Tauri, J (2012) Indigenous Critique of Authoritarian Criminology, in K. Carrington; M. Ball; E. O’Brien and Juan Tauri (eds), Crime, Justice and Social Democracy: International Perspectives. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 217-233.

Tauri, J (2014) Criminal Justice as a Colonial Project in Settler-Colonialism, African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 8(1): 20-37.

Tauri, J (2016) The State, the Academy and Indigenous Justice: A Counter-Colonial Critique, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Wollongong.

Victor, W (2007) Indigenous Justice: Clearing Space and Place for Indigenous Epistemologies, research paper for the National Centre for Indigenous Peoples Governance.

Webb, R (2004) Māori Crime: Possibilities and Limits of an Indigenous Criminology, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Auckland.

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