Posted on May 17, 2021

Concern New Police Powers Could Perpetuate Systemic Racism Towards Māori

Michael Neilson, NZ Herald, May 11, 2021

New police powers proposed to prohibit gang members owning firearms and seize assets believed to be funded from organised crime will likely perpetuate systemic racism, the Māori Party says.

The National Party meanwhile has applauded the new bill, claiming the genesis as their own, with leader Judith Collins calling for “more teeth” while quashing concerns around systemic racism saying “it does not exist” in the police force.

On Tuesday Police Minister Poto Williams unveiled a bill to make it illegal for “high-risk people”, including gang members and serious criminals, to own firearms by issuing them Firearms Protection Orders (FPOs).

It was largely in response to “elevated” gun violence, she said.

While similar to National MP Simeon Brown’s bill currently before select committee, Williams said this would be “broader”, not just focusing on gang members.

It would also only apply to those who have committed offences, removing the discretionary powers proposed by Brown to issue FPOs before offending took place.

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi also unveiled amendments to the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act, enabling seizure of assets of those associated with organised crime – where the person’s known legitimate income is likely to have been insufficient to acquire the asset.

Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said while gun violence needed to be addressed, they were concerned the new powers would simply replicate the systemic racism that already existed in police.

In particular they were concerned at police racially profiling Māori who they simply believed to be in gangs, or stereotyping them if in possession of expensive assets.

“We are always concerned. We are dealing with the doubling down in the profiling of Māori and need to hold the Police Minister accountable.”

Their concerns were rooted in police statistics that show Māori much more likely than Pākehā to be on the receiving end of police force.

Other reports have also found Māori subjected to painful force at a higher rate than other offenders.

Former Police Commissioner Mike Bush acknowledged unconscious bias towards Māori existed in police, but the latest data continues to show disproportionate use of discretionary tools such as issuing precharge warnings – the police’s own measurement of addressing bias.

Police consultation documents on FPOs highlighted the likely disproportionate impact on Māori, particularly males, due to being “over-represented at all stages in the criminal justice system”.

It also mentioned Māori were more likely to be victims of gun violence, in particular wāhine Māori.

Williams said in response to these concerns she “applauded” work police were doing to address issues in this space, but their focus with the FPOs was on addressing “serious offending”.

Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said “targeting gangs was targeting Māori”.

“More needs to be done, but we need to look more at positive programmes stopping this happening altogether rather than allowing police to go out on fishing expeditions.

“It means our kids can’t wear flash shoes. During holidays when we all move around together, are we going to be deemed gang members?

“We saw with the armed police trial they were used more in traffic control than serious crime.”

National has broadly supported the bill, even giving Williams a cheer in the House when questioned about it, but called for it to include powers to conduct warrantless searches, as suggested by the Police Association.

Asked if she was concerned such powers could be abused by police given evidence of systemic racism Collins said systemic racism “absolutely” did not exist, with accusations “easy to make”.

“I was the Minister of Police four years and in that time I saw police go out of their way to represent all New Zealand.

“I believe any accusation police are systemically racist is frankly wrong.”

Green Party justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said while much of the gun law reform reflected their long-standing policy to prevent gun violence they were concerned about definitions of “organised crime”.

“This sits outside any proven criminal activity that results from criminal convictions, and we know that in practice the idea of being a ‘gang associate’ is applied broadly to prejudice Māori and other communities of colour.”

On the increased police seizure powers, Ghahraman said the Act was already problematic given it was treated as a civil rather than criminal matter.

Assets could therefore be seized without needing to prove evidence beyond reasonable doubt, as with normal criminal offending.

“And we know as with all things in the justice system it will disproportionately impact Māori and Pasifika. If we are going to seize assets it needs to only occur after criminal charges have been proven.”

Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson said there had been a lot of consultation with Māori already about the bill and they were working with iwi leaders.

Proposed legislation

  • Both the Firearms Prohibition Order Bill, and the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Amendment Bill will be introduced into the House before the end of the year, and the public will have an opportunity to comment on the bills when they are referred to select committee.
  • A person subject to an FPO cannot own, use, access or be around firearms (unless securely stored). Qualifying offences include serious firearms offences, serious violent offences, an offence of participation in an organised criminal group, and terrorism-related offences under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002.
  • Under the proposed FPO bill, an FPO would last up to 10 years and penalties envisaged would depend on which conditions the person had breached.
  • A person who was found in possession or control of a firearm would face a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment, or up to seven years’ imprisonment if the firearm was a prohibited firearm.
  • If the person breached a condition such as residing in a location where there were firearms, or visiting a prohibited location such as gun shop, the penalty would be up to two years’ imprisonment.