Aotearoa New Zealand has always valued the role of a police force, and understood the need for law enforcement. This assumed legitimacy has come under dispute. As we march steadily towards the half-life of the 21st Century, we need to define that role.
The first police force, the archetype of what we have now, was created in Paris over 400 years ago. As the divine right of kings was the fashion of the time, it was primarily used by Louis XIV for religious pogroms and quelling unrest. Many argue that the role of the police still has the remnants of its genetic ancestor, used as a tool in class warfare and enforcing discriminatory policies. This has been argued most recently by the Black Lives Matter movement in America. As a response, a plethora of academics and activists have called for defunding the police – a slogan often misunderstood.
Historically the police have been used as a tool to punish dissidents (such as unions and ideologues) and as the bludgeon of the ruling class. Today, their role is seen as catching criminals who break the immutable law of the land, created and drafted by politicians and technocrats. That law did not, and does not, always bend towards justice. One only needs to look at the history of oppression in New Zealand; the Native Land Courts, Springbok Tours, Parihaka, Bastion Point and the strike of 1913 (among others) to realize that is was often shaped by those in power for social control. This kind of social order often needed race and religion as the moral justifications for the brutal response.
The long history of explicit police oppression has been mostly softened by the role of police today. For generations we as individuals have relied on the police in cases of personal emergency and violence. For better or worse, the general public (myself included) have relied heavily on them for resolution. For countries that are stable democracies like New Zealand, there is relative safety and prosperity provided by the police. While there are deserved criticisms and lingering schisms, we like to believe the police institution has modernized in tandem with society. This is debatable.
Enforcing the law in New Zealand is often found to be discriminatory (the Police Association itself has admitted this) and has led to higher rates of incarceration of Maori. Statistics prove that European demographics are just as likely to be offenders as Maori (a 1 percent difference in rates) yet Maori are more likely to face longer and more punitive sentences. During interactions, Maori are more likely to be abused during an arrest and six-times more likely to have a gun pulled or handcuffs used compared to other demographics. The statistics are much higher for the use of dogs and pepper spray.
There seems to be little rational for the difference in police practices between demographics. There are, of course, a myriad of factors which effect sentencing. Education, drug use, criminal record, employment, geographic area and material facts are all influential on the delivery of a verdict in the courts. But the role of the police ends before the courtroom. Police focus on the immediate situation, not the causes.
The issues we face today in New Zealand, particularly domestic violence, drug abuse, suicide and homelessness is something the police are not equipped to deal with. The socio-economic issues that drive crime, in many ways inherited from a colonial past, lead to the arrest and convictions of those most likely to be affected by it – Maori.
The call to defund the police is to re-envision efforts to maintain public safety. The onus should not be on police to lift people out of poverty, to rehabilitate drug addicts, up-skill the unemployed, console the homeless or send people to university. It is also not their job to rectify the wrongs of the past. That is not expected of them.
Police are currently required to play a more diverse role in society than they should. Dealing with the consequences of social issues is among the responsibilities of a police officer. There needs to be a clearer definition of the role police have in society. Recent history shows they have the burden of providing a superficial balm, a band-aid, to systemic societal failures. Money has been poured into the procurement of more police officers to deal with this additional work when it shouldn’t have been. Other organizations are far more effective at dealing with homelessness, drug abuse, suicide attempts and the multitude of issues afflicting New Zealand which are associated with poverty and crime.
We need to direct resources towards rehabilitation centers, mental health workers, job councilors and the array of professionals who can genuinely address the underlying causes of crime and shift would-be criminals towards a better path. We need to stop the wasted spending on penalization and incarceration, and ring-fence it for rehabilitative efforts. It is a sad irony that additional police are needed, and more money spent, to deal with the outcomes of much deeper issues. The police force makes up less than 2% of New Zealand’s overall budget – whereas the military and corrections is nearly triple that and has far less required spending. This reallocation would be better sued for social services. For example, the Labour Government sanctioned the purchase of a Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft for $1.9 billion; this one plane effectively canceled out the “historic” investment into mental health ($1.7 billion) for the next five years.
An effective solution would be new guidelines and/or protocols; professional assistance with health-related call-outs, rehabilitation-first practices for drug abusers and consistent contact with low –level criminals. This will build more practical collaboration between the police and outreach services. Police are the enforcers of the law – that is their role. They should not be straddled with alleviating embedded societal woes.
Government and society, not the police, bear the responsibility of ensuring that those who may commit crime (or who already have) are given the opportunity to better themselves.
Damon Rusden is a chef, journalist and law student with an avid belief in civic education and accountability. He was also a Green Party candidate.