A Racist System: Māori and Pacific Kiwis Talk About the Police

A Racist System: Māori and Pacific Kiwis Talk About the Police

“Sometimes I’ve asked, What, seriously? Why are you pulling me over? But I know. I know why.”
September 18, 2017, 1:36am

The numbers are clear: New Zealand's justice system isn't colour-blind. The data shows an enormous divide between how Pākehā, Māori and Pacific New Zealanders experience the justice system. The police commissioner has even admitted bias can play a role in their work, and it's something they're working on.

But what do those numbers look like off the page?

Māori and Pacific New Zealanders of all ages and walks of life have told VICE about their experiences with police. Mothers, workers, teenagers, professionals: each told stories of being pulled up constantly for 'random' checks, kicked out of shops, stopped in the street, followed by security, humiliated or racially abused. Alone, each of their stories reveals small discrepancies. Taken together, they paint a disturbing picture of racial profiling, distrust, humiliation, and fear. Some had been arrested or served time. Most had never had any kind of arrest or criminal record.


The impacts of racial discrepancies in New Zealand's justice system are already evident. Māori young people are three times more likely to be arrested than their Pākehā peers. Meanwhile, Pacific New Zealanders are twice as likely as likely as Pākehā to be apprehended, prosecuted, and convicted, and almost two-and-a-half times more likely to receive a custodial sentence or be remanded in custody. The disparity between Māori and Pacific and Pākehā, which starts at the point of arrest, continues through the courts. Māori currently make up 51 percent of our prison population, despite accounting for just 14 percent of the country overall.

But there other effects too. Miriama, who became a victim of domestic violence, didn't feel able to call the police when she was in danger. Brian, who grew up wanting to be a cop, ended up in the cells one night, a few years after watching his family racially abused by an officer. Ana, who worries as her son gets older he will be profiled.

Brian Manawatu

I don't trust them. No. I feel nervous around them. When did I first start distrusting them? I was a kid. Mum was having a party. I don't know why they came, but there were about three of them. My auntie's partner at the time was there, and he goes, "What are you guys doing here? You don't need to be here." And an Island police officer comes in. He goes, "Why don't you just shut the fuck up, you nigger." He used the n-word—an islander, same colour as me. And I thought, this is wrong. What's going on here? I'd heard other stories, growing up. But I think that was a bit of a turning point. I'd wanted to be a cop. When I was a kid, that was always my dream, I wanted to be a police officer. But that was how it went, the party didn't even get broken up, they just came in, threw their weight around and left. Just another party really. That was 22 years ago, and I'm 37 now.

I think it changed my path, of course. I didn't want to be a cop after that.

Josie Butler

I used to get pulled up a lot more than my other friends. Which I didn't really notice—I thought it was what happened to everybody. But then there was one occasion where I had a friend in the car who was Pākehā, and we got pulled up three separate times on that night. The car was all legal, everything was fine. It was only then, having his perspective, that I realised it was weird. He said, "This is really so far out of the norm—this has never happened to me."
After that it became the running joke, because it happens more in summer, when I get more of a tan. But I just feel like that's just the way things are in New Zealand—and in the big scheme of societal racism, I think this is probably quite an unconscious racism. A lot of cops probably don't even realise they're doing it.

Zion Tauamiti*

I was waiting in the carpark of The Press. I was working construction at the time, so I was in my fluro work gear. I has just standing by the car waiting for my girlfriend who worked in the office. It was a sunny day. And I noticed someone come down out of the offices into the carpark, jumping on his motorcycle. The whole time he walked past me, he was staring me up and down. Then I saw him get on the phone, and straight away I knew: this is one of those days where the cops turn up. Lo and behold, a few minutes later, a police car pulls up. "What are you up to mate?" I say I'm just waiting. And they go, "Alright". Stood there, looked at me for a bit. I rang my girlfriend to come down and explain, but they headed off. By the time she got down they'd left.

One time I got pulled up three times in one night. My car was all up to scratch and that. I ask now, "Why are you pulling me up? Why'd I see you back at Eastgate Mall, and you've done a u-turn, followed me for a kilometre, and now you're pulling me up?"


Another night I was waiting outside my girlfriend's, sitting in the parked car—the car wasn't even turned on. Then their flashing lights go off: boom. They pull up right in front of the car, lights still going, they get out and say, "What are you doing here?" I tell them I'm just waiting for my girlfriend, she's getting ready. They say "Who are you waiting for on this street? Is this your car?"
So I called her, told her: "You need to come out now." She comes out of the house—she's Pākehā—and they're asking her: "This man says he's waiting for you". She says yeah, he's my boyfriend, he has the right to be there.

It's tricky because it means you end up buying into that mentality really young: that "fuck the police, gangs vs cops, whites vs browns". You carry that mentality, that they are anti-you. So you become anti-them.

Ana Mulipola

It was more into adulthood, more in recent years that I developed more of a consciousness around it. Maybe I'm a bit more worldly. A bit more attuned, aware of the signs.
I have a 13-year-old son now. He's a lovely boy, well spoken, intelligent, people tell me what a good-natured boy he is.
When he was about 10, he was playing at Northcote School, where his cousin goes. And one day, they came home and he was bawling his eyes out, really scared. He told me a lady was calling the police. What had happened was his cousin, who goes to the school, had shown him his desk through the window. This mother had gone ballistic, accusing them, telling them she'd called the police. I went down to approach her. She saw me coming and just bristled, went on the defence. She had the look of guilt, saying, "Oh, there have been incidents, there were security issues." I spoke in defence of my son, my nephew. I said, "He goes to this school as well."

A few weeks ago, when we came home one night, we got out of the car, went to cross the road, and he had his hoodie on. I said, "Son, remove your hood." I kind of surprised myself that I'd asked him to do that, and he says, "Why? It's cold!" I explained to him later: you know, it's night time. You're a Polynesian boy. Your head's covered with a hood. It creates a picture, and I'm concerned about him being judged.


The first time I was maybe 18, driving my new car down Ferry Road. A Daewoo Leganza. You didn't see many of those cars around at that time. A cop car was driving past me and he does a u-turn, rushes up behind me. Sirens. He comes up to the window, goes: "Who owns the car?"
That's the first thing he said.
I said, "I own it." They spent a good 10, 15 minutes doing their checks, then he drives off. That was it. No explanation, nothing at all.

It still goes on. Maybe two weeks ago, I'm driving my red van up Shirley ways. Cops pull up next to me, they ask me, "Whose van is it?" It's my van. They drive off, no explanation. Sometimes I've asked, "Why are you pulling me over?" I'm one to ask: "What, seriously? Why are you pulling me over?" But I know. I know why.


Another night in Auckland, I'm coming from the city, coming up Great North Road, through Grey Lynn and toward the motorway, and there's a checkpoint. The cops are waving a bunch of cars through. When it gets to me? "Stop." Why me, out of this whole line of cars? The cars behind me, they're letting them through, letting them through—but my cousins are a few cars behind us. They get stopped as well. It is what it is.

One day I was parked up in Sumner, me and my cousin, about to hop up and go for a walk. This cop pulls over, circles around a few times, pulls up beside us, puts his window down, he goes "What are you guys doing?" We're like, "Nothing. What are you doing?" He says, "We've had a few complaints, two males sitting in a red Toyota." We go "Really? We're just about to go for a walk." He says all right, and left. But it's not a crime to sit in a car and send a text. Were we playing music loud, were we shouting? No we weren't. Who complained?

I've never been arrested. I didn't think about [racism] as an overall thing till recently, when I started to see more stuff out of America. I used to think, "Here in NZ, we're sweet. I know I get pulled over for no reason, but that's just pulling over Islanders." I never really thought about being treated differently. But now I think, when I see a cop, he'll treat me different.

Tane Luafutu

I notice it especially down here in the South Island and that. You don't see it so much in the north, maybe because it's so diverse up there. But coming down here, living across the road from Merivale Mall, I was one of about four brown faces—and the others are Indian. You notice when you're in shopping centres, always being followed around the stores. Security's got their eye on you—and I don't dress untidily or any of that. A while ago I went to a suit store, Sergios. I had money to spend for the formal. They said, "If you don't buy anything you need to leave." But we had money to spend. Then they say, "You need to leave now, we're closed." It was like one o'clock in the afternoon, there are other customers in the store. So we left. A while ago I was driving with a friend, she was sober driving. A police officer came and pulled us over. He looks over at me and asks, "Do you have a record?" I told him I didn't. I was a prefect in school. You kind of learn to deal with it, it becomes part of life. It teaches you at a young age there's going to be idiots everywhere you go. People who have different views, different opinions, and you just learn to turn the other cheek I guess. It is a shit feeling though. It does hurt. You get a bit of a fire inside you.

Miriama Buchanan

I got arrested when I was a teenager for shoplifting. I stole a phone, had to give it back. Then the police took me in. They made me sit in the window where everyone could see me. They took me down the main street of Gore in my cuffs, in the middle of the day. Then a female cop took me into a separate room and strip-searched me. Since then, I've been in cars with friends, and we get pulled over because they say we look similar to people they're looking for. I get followed if I'm wearing a cap, or smoking out of my car with the window down, with my sunnies on. They make this assumption, stop what they're doing, start following me. Then they screen my plates, realise I'm registered and warranted. I feel like I'm being bullied by the police. That's the sensation, of being picked on. So in times I've actually needed the police's help, I feel like they look down upon me. In the past I've had domestic violence situations. But it's made me not trust the police when I do actually need them. If I'm ever in a situation where I need help now, the police are not the people I call.


I'd just met my partner, who's from North Shore. She's Pākehā, a European New Zealander, and we were on maybe our third date, driving home down Linwood Avenue, and got pulled up randomly out of nowhere.
First off, they say it's just a check—random check. Then they say to me, "Are you wanted for anything?" I say nah. I've got no record. They ask if I know a guy named Tama. I say I don't. And in that moment, it was normal for me: "Ok, thanks officer." But her reaction was what got me. She's like, "Oh my goodness," and kind of piped up to the cop: "You can't ask him that." I told her it happens all the time, and we just drove on, but she couldn't get over it. It was her shock that was more shocking for me. That stayed with me a while.



There is still little in the way of research into police attitudes toward Māori and Pacific people in New Zealand, but the small amount we have is revealing.

Back in 1998, police commissioned a Victoria University study which interviewed more than 700 police officers who had spent more than five years on the job. Almost half said they were more likely to pull over a 'flash' car if it had a Māori driver. Almost 70 percent of officers reported they heard racist language used about suspects or offenders "sometimes or often". Thirty-one percent said they were more likely to suspect a Māori person of a crime. Eighteen percent said they were more likely to stop someone of Māori descent and ask what they were doing if they were out late at night.

Some of the police officers' own answers are included in the report. One wrote: "Responses are tailored to the comprehension/intelligence/age etc of offender NOT race as such. But empirically certain races seem to possess similar levels of comprehension." Another said, "Asians will try to say they don't understand English. Māori, more often than not, will just lie to you."
It's now 2017—a number of the police officers interviewed will have retired. But how dramatically have things changed?

Going by the numbers, very little. A report by the Department of Corrections shows a higher likelihood for Māori offenders to have police contact; be charged; lack legal representation; not be granted bail; plead guilty; be convicted; be sentenced to non-monetary penalties; and be denied release to Home Detention.


Pinpointing exactly where things get out of balance is hard. Some of the discrepancies could be accounted for by higher rates of committing the offences. Māori and Pacific communities are statistically more likely to experience poverty, unemployment or addiction, which can in turn be risk factors for crime.

But in other areas, Māori offenders were simply punished more than white people doing the same thing. In this 2007 report, for example, Corrections notes that on the basis of equivalent usage of cannabis, Māori experienced arrest at three times the rate of non-Māori users.

Institutional racial bias and discrepancies between races costs New Zealand hundred of millions each year. Māori currently make up 51 percent of New Zealanders in prison. With a prison population of almost 10,000, that's 5,100. But if the prison population were proportional to the country's actual demographic makeup, that would drop to 1,400. If we could keep it proportional, we'd save ourselves $340 million a year.

NZ Police spokesman Gareth Thomas said yes, police acknowledged that Māori and Pacific communities were overrepresented across the Justice System.

"Police recognise the need to continue to work and build trust and confidence with Māori, Pacific and young people across our communities," he said.

He notes that back in 2015, "the Commissioner acknowledged the potential for unconscious bias in Police was something the organisation needed to be aware of when it comes to staff use of discretion."

"As an organisation, it is important to recognise that unconscious bias is inherent in all humans and all organisations need to work hard to fully understand how it might impact on what they do."

*Full disclosure: VICE's journalist previously dated Tauamiti.

Follow Tess on twitter: @tessairini

All photos Naomi Haussmann