Posted on March 24, 2021

Police Launch Investigation into ‘Unconscious Bias’ Against Māori

RNZ, March 16, 2021

Police are investigating whether they have unconscious bias against Māori, but won’t say it is an inquiry into racism.


When police commissioner Andrew Coster was asked by Morning Report if unconscious bias just meant racism, he said: “We have to be careful about labels, because that ends up being some of the talking past each other. Unconscious bias affects every individual and can lead to us doing things we don’t intend”.

“When we are talking about policing, we are actually talking about what are the outcomes that all of policing are leading to and are they fair an equitable for all people. And that might relate to an individual but actually more likely to relate to systems and processes and practices,” Coster said.

Part of the challenge was that people “use the word racism to mean different things”, he said.

“If you say racism to our officers, they will feel like we are calling them individually racist. Whereas a lot of the advocates in this area, when they use the word racism, they are talking about a system that consistently gets worse outcomes for one group of people than another.”

Coster was asked by Morning Report: “You’re talking about unconscious bias in the form of racism, aren’t you? You’re not talking about unconscious bias in any other forum in particular, are you?”

“Unconscious bias is a narrow topic that’s about individuals and how they see and view the world and make decisions, but bias more broadly looks at the impact of an organisation as a whole,” Coster said.


Coster said it was a topic that had “very emotive opinions on either side”.

“What we need to find here is some common ground so we’re able to have some sensible conversation about the issue. Police recognises that it has a part to play in tackling these issues, we need to be able to do that from a strong evidence base.

“The part of the challenge here is the tendency to start with raw statistics and those statistics will tell a devastating story for Māori in terms of criminal justice. Police’s part in that needs more examination. We have a range of challenges that occur upstream of policing that can lead to poor outcomes for Māori. We need to understand what our part of it is and it we can get that in sight we can have a conversation about the right way to shift it.”

The statistics did not tell the whole story, in Coster’s view, because the need for policing was the “consequence of many other troubles”.

They included family violence, mental health, drugs, alcohol or other issues.

“The starting point is poor. We need to understand if police is making that worse and if so, in what ways so that we can shift it. Our people come to work to do a great job. And they do a great job, so tackling this in a way that respects the intent our people but also owns the problem is part of what research will help us do.”

If issues were raised during the research, then police needed to make change, Coster said.

“We are not waiting though, there are already areas where we are working in terms of looking to shift outcomes in terms of Māori.”

The research had been “in design for a little while now” and had come together in the past few weeks, Coster said.

The study will focus not just on front-line police staff and their interactions, but also on policy, training, and deployment.


RNZ recently revealed officers were approaching Māori youths who had done nothing wrong and photographing them.

There were three areas at risk of bias in policing, Coster said.

“Who we stop and speak to, how we use force, and how we seek prosecutions. There are other areas but those are the ones that really stick out, and when you look at the raw statistics, those are the areas where the outcomes are worst for Māori.”

The issue of police stopping young rangatahi and photographing them came under the subject of who police stopped, Coster said.


Coster said he had told police that stopping and photographing rangatahi was not appropriate, but did not say it had stopped altogether.

“Police carry on doing our business in terms of preventing crime and the balance that we have to strike there is when is it appropriate for us to stop and speak to somebody … in a preventative context, recognising that is not an exact science.”