Amicus Curiae: Running While Black and Driving While Brown – Racial Profiling by American and New Zealand Police

Rebecca Hallas

Following the death of Freddie Gray, there have been thousands of people converging in the streets of Baltimore to protest the numbers of black men dying at the hands of the American police force. The outrage is understandable. After being arrested and detained in a police van, Mr Gray suffered “three fractured vertebrae and a crushed voice box,” which eventually killed him. Images of riots have been spread across the media, and recently in an unexpected move, long-established rivals, the Bloods and the Crips, have called a truce to come together to seek justice for Freddie.

The U.S. has been no stranger to riots as of late, after the killing of unarmed student Michael Brown, which sparked outrage mid-2014. Following that event, the hash-tag #BlackLivesMatter spread rapidly across social media, and more protests, marches, and riots have occurred with every publicized police killing of a young black man.

It may be easy for us to separate ourselves from what is occurring in the United States. After all, New Zealand’s gun laws are nowhere near as liberal as America’s, and our police officers are not as trigger-happy as some of their American counterparts are. However, the issue of race and how it intersects with criminal justice is still relevant to New Zealand.

Studies have shown that New Zealand police officers are more likely to stop Maori people driving “flash” cars. Police officers also tend to have more negative attitudes toward Maori people and Pacific Islanders. In a research paper undertaken at Victoria University, over 700 senior police officers were interviewed. Some extremely troubling statements were made:

“There seems to be a stereotyped attitude. If one Maori offends then all are considered to be judged that way -‘typical Maori’.”

“The darker races are all treated as second class citizens. The assumption of guilt is worse for Maori.”

“Many long serving Caucasian police officers have little time for juvenile Maoris, or Polynesians, they talk down to them.”

The police are expected to be impartial providers of protection and law enforcement. Conversely, the assumption made by some of the force that Maori people and Pacific Islanders are more likely to be criminals is problematic to say the least. This attitude could also be said to have a cyclical effect. For example, in the table below, it was found that police officers are more likely to suspect Maori people (over Caucasians) of having committed an offence, and are more likely to stop and question Maori people who are out in the early hours of the morning.

police freddie gray

This practice of being more suspicious of Maori people and stopping them more frequently, means police are more likely to come across Maori offenders, leading to statistics such as those found by Professor David Fergusson, who discovered that rates of arrest and conviction of Maori users of cannabis were three times higher than non-Maori users, even with ethnic differences in cannabis use and other factors taken into account. This can partially explain the disproportionate representation of Maori offenders in prison. Additionally, this style of policing could also mean Caucasian offenders are less likely to be caught, with the police’s emphasis on targeting Maori people and Pacific Islanders.

Although things may not be comparatively “as bad” here as they are in the States, that does not mean that the New Zealand police force’s treatment of Maori people and Pacific Islanders is innocuous. Systematic racism in New Zealand cannot and should not continue to be ignored. Following the Roastbusters Scandal there was a call for better sensitivity by the police when dealing with victims of sexual assault. In addition, it is time to address preconceived judgments based on race too.

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