Joris De Bres: The Police and Minority Communities

Published: Thu 8 Dec 2005 01:18 PM
Human Rights Commission
8 December 2005
The Police and Minority Ethnic Communities
Keynote Address to the Australasian Police Multicultural Bureau, Wellington, 12 noon, Thursday 8 December, 2005
Joris de Bres, Race Relations Commissioner
Thank you very much for the invitation to join you today for this meeting of the Australasian Police Multicultural Bureau in Wellington. The fruits of your trans-Tasman cooperation have been very evident in the past year with the modification of a number of Australian police initiatives with minority ethnic communities for use in New Zealand, the latest being the Police guide to religious diversity.
Retiring Police Commissioner
Let me first pay a tribute to retiring New Zealand Police Commissioner Rob Robinson. He has demonstrated a quiet and determined commitment to address the pressing issues relating to Maori, Pacific and other minority ethnic communities, including the skill development and cultural change required of the Police, and the community relationships that need to be established and strengthened for this to happen.
He has been under no illusion that it takes time for attitudes to change at the front line, but that change they must. He has also supported an open and positive relationship with the Human Rights Commission both in the area of race relations and in human rights in general. We have for example been working together with the Police on the development of a comprehensive human rights training package, and on a programme of training for those who will train others.
Working relationships
I also acknowledge the excellent working relationship the Human Rights Commission has with the Maori, Pacific and Ethnic Services Unit in the Commissioner's office, and the work that they do.
These relationships require a high level of commitment on the part of the Police, and this has perhaps been made easier by the changes resulting from a review of human rights protections in New Zealand in 2000. The review led to the merger of the former Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Race Relations Conciliator in 2001 and a revised mandate for the promotion of human rights and the encouragement of harmonious relationships. The emphasis of the new Commission's work was changed from a focus on determining complaints to one of strategic leadership, positive advocacy and public education. The Commission still receives complaints about discrimination (including now also about alleged discrimination in Government legislation, policy and practice), but these are dealt with by way of disputes resolution processes rather than investigation and judgment.
Racial discrimination, harassment and abuse
A research report on Engaging Asian Communities in New Zealand published by the Asia New Zealand Foundation in July of this year noted that:
"The vast majority of participants in this research had experienced some form of racism. Most common was verbal abuse and 'the finger', often by teenagers or children. Overt racism experienced included: damage to cars identifiable as 'Asian'; having bottles or stones thrown at them; and being laughed at because of poor pronunciation.
"There was also subtle racism. This included in employment: a perception that employers gave jobs and promotions to Kiwis instead of Asians (all other things being equal, even if the Asian person was a better worker); workmates pretending not to understand; workmates patronising Asians; and management positions being reserved for Kiwis.
Elsewhere, racism was manifest as Asians were deliberately misunderstood in cafes and supermarkets 'in order to humiliate me'; being snubbed by Kiwi mothers in schools when greeting their children; and being avoided in public places, like swimming pools.
"There were differences in perceived racism between migrant groups. The Sri Lankans and Indians mentioned that they perceived that there was discrimination, but that they had not experienced overt racism (as above). Overt racism seemed more likely for Chinese."
Cases of discrimination in employment and the provision of services can be pursued through the Human Rights Commission's dispute resolution service, but the number of complaints that reach the stage of mediation is relatively small.
Instances of property damage, racial abuse, threatening behaviour and assault are more appropriately referred to the Police. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such crimes are under-reported, although it is difficult to identify the level of reporting because no separate records are kept for complaints of racially motivated offences.
One victim, who had experienced verbal abuse, who had rubbish left on her doorstep and who had eggs thrown at her house, told Auckland's Eastern Courier (16 February 2005) that such incidents aren't reported because "people feel they're not serious enough, or Police won't act on their complaints", and because "it's happening so often it becomes normal". I hear many similar such stories.
However, the Police have made it very clear this year that they will investigate and prosecute racially motivated crime, and their success in achieving convictions in a number of cases may over time change such perceptions and act as a deterrent to potential offenders.
Racially Motivated Crime
Cases of racial and religious harassment and abuse successfully prosecuted by the New Zealand Police in 2005 included the following:
* A 51 year old Christchurch man who was a member of the National Front was convicted in the Christchurch District Court in April 2005 of spitting at a 57 year old man of Maori and Indian descent, and sentenced to 120 hours community work
* An 18 year old Nelson woman pleaded guilty in the Nelson District Court in July 2005 to charges of repeatedly harassing and assaulting a 17 year old Asian woman and was sentenced to two years imprisonment
* A 53 year old Hutt Valley man pleaded guilty in the Wellington District Court in September 2005 to sending 30 abusive letters to Muslims in 2004. He was convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment and ordered to pay $500 each to three of the victims.
* A 25 year old Blenheim man was convicted in the Blenheim District Court in October 2005 of disorderly behaviour for yelling abuse at a Muslim woman wearing traditional Muslim headdress, accusing her of being a terrorist and telling her to go home (she had lived in New Zealand for 15 years). He was sentenced to 120 hours community work
* Two 18 year old Auckland men associated with the National Front pleaded guilty in the Otahuhu District Court in Auckland to seven charges of intentional damage to places of Muslim worship around Auckland and were sentenced to 12 months imprisonment and ordered to pay reparations of $5000 each
* A 28 year old Dunedin man was convicted in the Dunedin District Court in November 2005 of abusing a 28 year old Somali woman (wearing a Muslim head-dress) and assaulting a Saudi Arabian Muslim man (after abusing him about his religion). He was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment on the first charge, and to two months imprisonment on the second.
* A 28 year old New Plymouth man was charged in the Palmerston North District Court with verbally abusing and physically assaulting 3 Asian students.
* A Wanganui man associated with the National Front was charged in the Wellington District Court with assault for an attack on a group of Somali youth in Wellington in 2004.
Reported instances of hate crime in New Zealand are very low, and the above list is probably the largest number of race-related prosecutions and convictions that we have seen in recent years.
I don't think they signal a deterioration in our race relations. Several of them have a common origin in people associated with the tiny National Front organisation, who certainly do not represent the views of the vast majority of New Zealanders.
What is significant is the fact that both the police and the courts have signaled through these prosecutions, convictions and sentences that not just racially motivated property damage and assault, but also racial abuse and harassment, are unacceptable and will be dealt with as crimes. Without detracting from the Police's other initiatives with ethnic communities this year, I believe the message of these successful prosecutions will do more than anything else to reassure ethnic communities and increase their confidence in the Police.
What I hope they can take from this is that if they report racial abuse and harassment that is severe or repeated, and they have a witness or evidence to support their complaint, the Police and the courts can and will take action to punish the offenders. Equally, it is an invitation to all New Zealanders who witness such harassment or abuse, to report it to the Police.
Public Meeting in Nelson
Following the Nelson incident, the Nelson Police organised a well-attended public meeting in August 2005 to discuss the issue of racially motivated attacks. Area Commander Brian McGurk had already publicly spoken of the Police's zero tolerance of racial attacks, and invited the public to report all incidents.
He said the purpose of the meeting was to "demonstrate an absolute intolerance from the community for any type of racially motivated crime or incident as well as providing reassurance to the members of ethnic communities in the Nelson region". He said he believed the time was right for the local community "to renew their efforts in welcoming members of emerging ethnic communities and valuing their contribution to the wider Nelson community". I commend the initiative shown by the Police in this instance.
Police Ethnic Strategy
The Police launched their strategy for Working Together with Ethnic Communities in February 2005. It sits alongside the existing strategies, Haere Whakamua: Moving Forward 2001 - 2010 for Maori and the Police Pacific Peoples Responsiveness Strategy for Pacific Peoples. Among other things, the strategy foresees improved relationships, increased ethnic recruitment, training for police and focused policing to deter offences of inciting racial disharmony and other race relations offences.
It notes the need to identify and understand ethnic related victimisation issues, and to improve Police knowledge and skills to deter violence motivated by racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance. Actions taken in pursuit of the strategy in 2005 have included:
* Support for ethnic and Asian liaison officers
* Specific emphasis on recruitment of police from ethnic communities
* Publication of a multi-lingual phrase book for front-line police
* Establishment of a multi-lingual website for ethnic communities
* Publication of a police guide to religious diversity
* Establishment of ethnic liaison committees.
Racism in Sport
The incidence of racial abuse at sports fixtures is a major issue internationally, but has not been reported as widespread in New Zealand. In 2005 there were however media reports of racial abuse experienced by Pacific Island players at a rugby league national club match on Auckland's North Shore (Sunday News, 8 May 2005) and by New Zealand based West Indian and Pakistani players in Taranaki club cricket (Herald on Sunday, 13 November 2005).
It is important that the management of sports codes in New Zealand ensure that they have the means to deal with such behaviour by both players and spectators through their disciplinary procedures (as the Australian Rugby League authorities and the International Cricket Board have done for example). But it may also be a matter for the Police where such abuse leads to violence, as happened in the North Shore case. As with racially motivated crime in general, we should not let the low incidence or reporting of such behaviour deter us from having mechanisms in place to deal with it.
Hate speech legislation
There has been quite a lot of discussion in New Zealand over the past year about the desirability or otherwise of legislating to further prohibit or restrain hate speech, following the establishment of a Parliamentary Select Committee to look into the matter last year.
Although the Committee has held hearings, it did not report before the election, and the new government's confidence and supply agreement with the United Future Party means that there will be no hate speech legislation in the current parliamentary term.
The Commission's view was in any event that the present legislative provisions were "about right", although there was a case for transferring the criminal provision for inciting racial disharmony (Section 131) from the Human Rights Act to the Summary Offences Act and extending it to cover not just race, colour and nationality, but also religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age or disability. The Police's prosecution of offenders under the Summary Offences Act this year has given weight to that positive assessment of the existing arrangements for racial incitement.
The information on prosecutions for racially motivated crime that I have used today has been gleaned from newspaper reports and discussions with the Police. An issue that has been highlighted in the Police's ethnic strategy is the question of the inadequacy of current data collection. Improvements in data collection are necessary In order to know the scale of the challenges, and the efficacy of policing, which in turn are important for public education and reassurance of ethnic communities. I note that this isssue is on your agenda today, and I hope that you will be able to share information and experience on that subject through your trans-Tasman cooperation.
I have talked mainly today about racially motivated crime, but you will have noted that a significant number of the successful prosecutions I referred to earlier were actually instances of religious harassment deriving from Islamaphobia - where racial and religious intolerance have combined in a manner similar to anti-Semitism.
The contemporary manifestations of Islamaphobia have their roots no doubt in both the international demonisation of Islam and the terrorist acts that have been carried out by extremists in the name of Islam. The way that governments and Police deal with the risk of terrorism will determine whether or not Muslim communities feel discriminated against, harassed or marginalised.
Clearly, the Police have a vital interest in maintaining positive relationships with Muslim communities, as these communities, while not in any way responsible for individuals who support terrorism, have the greatest ability to assist the Police in ensuring that it does not take root in their communities.
The future
The steps that the New Zealand Police are taking to address pressing issues that affect Maori, Pacific and other ethnic communities are vital not just in terms of indigenous and minority rights, but in terms of the future for New Zealand society as a whole. There is a demographic revolution going on in New Zealand, which is much more evident in statistics about the ethnicity of our children than it is in our overall ethnicity statistics.
While the percentage of the New Zealand population who identified as Maori, Pacific and Asian in 2001 was around 28%, the percentage in our school population in 2004 was already 40%. And 40% of the newborn babies in 2001 were Maori and Pacific, meaning the school percentages will be even greater by now.
Therefore the Police's focus on building relationships with Maori, Pacific and other minority ethnic communities is not simply about avoiding the marginalisation and alienation of minorities, but about winning the confidence of groups in the youth age group that will very shortly constitute a majority of that age group. And I do not need to tell you that it will be the Police's relationship with young people that will be critical to successful policing in the future.
So the challenges that we face in New Zealand with respect to police and ethnic communities are:
1. Winning and retaining the confidence of ethnic communities, and in particular the growing number of young people in these communities.
2. Demonstrating non-discriminatory behaviour, reflecting the diversity of the New Zealand population within the Police, being accessible in terms of languages and people
3. Being responsive and having the capacity to promptly address complaints of racial and religious harassment and abuse
4. Building strong relationships with ethnic communities, not just at times of crisis
5. Collecting data that enables the monitoring of trends in reporting, investigating and prosecuting racially motivated crime and provides a means of accountability back to ethnic communities
6. Public education aimed at dispelling stereotypes about ethnic communities and in raising awareness of the incidence and effects of racially motivated crime

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