A national research project to investigate claims of racism in police could see New Zealand become a world leader in probing claims of institutional bias.
Waikato Universitys Te Puna Haumaru NZ Institute for Security and Crime Science director, Devon Polaschek, is one of 18 researchers involved in the programme that will identify if police are doing their job without bias and what improvements, if any, need to be made.
Criminal justice advocate Sir Kim Workman has also been called in to deal with the claims.
Only in the very early stages of the project, Polaschek couldnt discuss specifics but told Stuff she believes the results could help other countries tackle racial bias in the future.
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Waikato clinical psychologist Devon Polaschek has spent years studying high-risk violent offenders in prisons and on parole.
Overseas agencies have done a lot of research in this domain, which is useful for us to know about, but things here are always a bit different, the clinical psychologist said.
We have one of the highest indigenous populations in the Western World, and I think this gives us a real opportunity to do something here that cant be done in other areas of the world.
Polaschek suspects the programme will be conducted over several years and will require input from various groups and organisations.
While racial bias would be the focus of the work, other forms of bias would also be looked at.
Neither Polaschek nor Workman would speculate on the prospect of racial bias within police, but Workman described the announcement of the work as a watershed moment and the first time, to his knowledge, that a Government department had looked at its own bias.
Police are probably reflecting the attitudes of New Zealanders. We have a society where racial bias is present, Workman said.
It is very likely it is present in police as well.
Sir Kim Workman is working with police to look at bias within the force.
Polaschek said the most challenging aspect of the programme will be identifying where those biases are coming from.
When we talk about bias people can sometimes be very simplistic in how we understand it.
Someone might say for example that theres more Mori in prison than we have in the community therefore there is a bias – and there often is some bias – but where is that bias coming from.
A lot of bias occurs long before people have come in contact with Police, because Mori as a demographic experience many risk factors throughout their life at a much higher rate than others in the community.
In a Pkeh world, Mori are behind the eight-ball from birth and thats pretty much the profound affect of colonisation, so we have to take those things into account as well, because bias starts there.
She said the research will embrace these complexities and many more to come up with responses for Police to make change.
Research overseas has identified areas where police have behaved in an inconsistent way, but we need an open mind on what that looks like in New Zealand.
While Black Lives Matter has been hugely important here, we are not the US, we have similarities and differences, and we need to have an open mind so that we recognise all of that.
A 2016 report, He Waka Roimata, or A Vessel of Tears, showed Mori make up 51 per cent of the prison population but just 16 per cent of the general population. It was last year revealed that non-Mori were more-likely than Mori to get pre-charge warnings from police.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said police bias was widely discussed, but the debate had to be based in evidence and common understanding.
Allegations of bias are felt across the whole organisation, he said.
Objective research will either reassure the public that we are operating with fairness across all communities, or it will highlight where we need to improve our practices and processes.
Either way, the findings will inform police work programmes and help it to deliver on our commitment to Mori, and the Treaty, by ensuring our actions are fair, reasonable and proportionate for all New Zealanders.