Structural Discrimination

In recent years, politicians and senior public service managers, while openly acknowledging the differential between Māori and non-Maori, have resisted the idea that there is any deliberate ethnic bias, or evidence of personal racism in the system.


There is general agreement that adverse early-life experiences, and social and environmental factors contribute significantly to high Māori, which in turn impact on offending patterns.  However, while there is evidence of structural discrimination within the criminal justice system, and allegations of personal racism, there is a general reluctance to conduct research into these areas.  The absence of research thus enables politicians and senior public servants to deny that such issues exist, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary.


The idea of systemic bias within the criminal justice system has been resisted by government agencies over recent years.  When the Hon Dr Pita Sharples, Co-Leader of the Māori Party, launched the party’s Justice Policy on 1 October 2011, he spoke about the structural discrimination against Māori within the criminal justice system in general, and the Police in particular.  There was an expected public backlash against the comments and, when invited to comment, Rethinking Crime and Punishment issued a media release citing research  which supported Dr Sharple’s view. Dr Sharples was interviewed on Q and A on the 9 Oct.   On the 14th October, Commissioner Peter Marshall came to the defence of his staff in an interview on Te Karere. He did not agree there was a racial bias in Police dealings with Maori.

The issue was vigorously discussed on talkback radio, and most of the comment supported the Commissioner’s position.  Some commentators reproached Dr Sharples for his claims, and the then Minister of Police, the Hon Judith Collins, publicly chastised him for being ‘out of order’.


It is to some degree unfortunate that what research there is about the existence of personal racism within the criminal justice system, focuses on Police behaviour and attitudes.  The actions of public servants from Courts, Corrections and other agencies are largely concealed from public view.  Police business however, is public business.  Every action and encounter is measured, monitored and talked about.  If there is a perception of Police racism, it very quickly becomes a matter of public discussion.  Before long,  perception becomes reality.

Historically, the State has not been neutral, and agencies such as the police have actively policed Māori throughout New Zealand history. Likewise, Pacific peoples as an ethnic group have been the targets of active policing. In the 1970s, the ‘Dawn Raids’ against Pacific peoples by the New Zealand Police and immigration officials reflected a discriminatory practice out of proportion of the actual incidence of offending.[1]

In a recent publication, Khylee Quince summarized the evidence around police perceptions of Maori [2]. Research conducted in 1998 in conjunction with the police and Te Puni Kokiri assessed both Māori perceptions of the police and police perceptions of Maori. The Māori research participants were unanimous in their perception that “the police institution is a racist institution that perpetuates strong anti-Māori attitudes.”[3]. Participants related numerous examples as evidence, including being stopped and questioned on the pretext of criminal offending, verbal racist abuse, physical abuse during arrest, and disrespect for tikanga Maori [4].  Variables that were identified as relevant in influencing Police behaviour included: police perceptions about a person’s ethnicity, physical appearance, gender, class, associates, and whanau name. Many respondents thought that police often provoked Māori into verbally and/or physically retaliating to justify arrests. The result of these perceptions is that some people stated a strong attitude of distrust towards the police, such that they would be hesitant in going to them for assistance, or in providing assistance to police if asked. These were generalised attitudes, prevailing across all ages, income levels, educational levels, gender and geographical locations.

The parallel research on police perceptions of Māori often matched some of the negative attitudes perceived in the Māori study. For example, at least two thirds of the 737 police respondents reported hearing colleagues use racist language about Maori. Many reported a greater tendency to suspect Māori of an offence, or to stop and query Māori driving “flash” cars. Overall, the data suggested that about 25 per cent of police have negative attitudes towards Maori.[5]


In more recent times, there has been growing anecdotal evidence of, and widespread Māori dissatisfaction with, the extent of ethnic profiling, especially with young people.  Rethinking Crime and Punishment receives information on a regular basis about such incidents.  One contributor provided an internet link to a TV3 programme, which  16 min 50 sec into the programme, showed a ‘routine’ stop of four Māori youth.   They were held at gunpoint by the Police, and without reasonable cause, searched.  A small amount of cannabis was found, and the owner warned.  There was neither an explanation nor an apology.  The contributor asked the question – would that happen to a carload of Pakeha?

Māori youth are not the only ones singled out for attention.  A successful Māori business woman aged around 40 years reported that she .purchased a BMW car and was stopped seven times by the Police within the first two months.  She has since downsized.


The Waitangi Tribunal’s report Ko Aotearoa Tēnei poses solutions to inequalities that are based on a fundamental shift in attitude and approach by the Government:

Unless it is accepted that New Zealand has two founding cultures, not one; unless Māori culture and identity are valued in everything government says and does; and unless they are welcomed into the very centre of the way we do things in this country, nothing will change. Māori will continue to be perceived, and know they are perceived, as an alien and resented minority, a problem to be managed with a seemingly endless stream of taxpayer-funding programmes, but never solved.

This is not an issue that can be dealt with by responding to individual complaints about Police racism or structural discrimination.  A basic and fundamental shift in attitude is required.  Defending and justifying Police and Justice sector behaviour will not bring about necessary change.

Commitment to a sector-wide review of systems and practises across the Justice Sector is required.

The above excerpts are from Kim Workman’s 2011 paper, entitled ‘Maori Over-Representation in the Criminal Justice System – Does Structural Discrimination Have Anything to Do with It?’. You can read the full 25 page report here.


[1] Hill, R. (2008). Māori, police and coercion in New Zealand history. In D. Keenan (Ed.), Terror in our midst? Searching for terror in Aotearoa New Zealand. Wellington: Huia Publishers.

[2] Quince, Khylee (2007) Maori and the criminal justice system in New Zealand, in Criminal Justice in New Zealand (ed) Julia Tolme and Warren Brookbanks, Wellington:LexisNexus NZ Ltd.

[3] P Te Whaiti and Dr M Roguski (1998) Maori Perceptions of the Police Wellington, He Parakeke, 1998, G Maxwell and C Smith Police Perceptions of Maori Victoria University of Wellington, Institute of Criminology.

[4] P Te Whaiti and Dr M Roguski  (1998) Maori Perceptions of the Police Wellington, He Parakeke, Summary and Recommendations.

[5] G Maxwell and C Smith (1998) Police Perceptions of Maori Victoria University of Wellington, Institute of Criminology, Summary and Recommendations. Note that of the 737 police respondents, 8 per cent of the sample identified as Maori.

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