Policing the colonial project of Aotearoa New Zealand (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Policing the colonial project of Aotearoa New Zealand


Sandra Dickson is a Pākehā queer feminist bogan from the Hutt Valley who spends most of her time working to end gendered violence.  She is committed to working in relationships between Tangata Whenua and Tauiwi based on justice, equity and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

In 1997 a government report[1] into police attitudes towards Māori found significant evidence of institutional racism.  Almost one in four police officers had negative attitudes towards Māori and half of the officers reporting negative behaviour said it received no reprimand from supervisors.  Māori officers were significantly more likely to believe Māori were being treated with more suspicion than other ethnicities, but overall:

  • A third of police acknowledged there was a greater tendency to suspect Māori of an offence
  • Nearly half reported police were more likely to query vehicle registration when Māori were seen driving a flash car
  • About a fifth reported police were more likely to ask Māori what they were doing in the early hours of the morning
  • At least two thirds had heard colleagues using racist language about suspects or offenders

It’s useful here to consider what institutional racism means.  It’s not about the intent of individual police officers, judges or corrections staff, though of course that may be racist.  It’s about the patterns of different treatment by an institution because of race.  It’s about differences at every stage of the criminal justice system all pointing in the same direction.  It’s about the impact of colonisation.

“As with all cultures, that of the Police imbues the individuals within it with its core values and its historic ethic. Because of that the behaviour of an individual Police Officer cannot be separated from that of the culture. If the culture is based upon the institutionalised racism of colonisation, then its members will be imbued with, and may even manifest, that racism.”[2]

Figure 1: Racism and Cultural Violence Wheel, Network Waitangi Whangarei.[3]

Figure 1: Racism and Cultural Violence Wheel, Network Waitangi Whangarei.[3]

Figure 1: Racism and Cultural Violence Wheel, Network Waitangi Whangarei.[3]

In 2007 a government report[4] about the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system confirmed that Māori are more likely to have police contact; be charged; lack legal representation; not be granted bail; be convicted; be sentenced to non-monetary penalties and denied release to Home Detention.  While these “small” perhaps “cumulative” kinds of racism are acknowledged, the report leaned towards concluding that Māori families are more likely to foster environments in which criminality takes place. In sixty pages the word colonisation appears just once, in a quote from another researcher.  It suggested changes were required in other areas:

“the primary domain for government intervention to address disproportionality is argued to reside in the areas of health, social support and education, in order to reduce disadvantage and the problems it confers.”


The acknowledgment from the state that people take up criminal behaviour because disadvantage and poverty are awful and therefore we should be interested in social and material contexts is welcome.  However, it is not acceptable for the criminal justice system to fail to address its own institutional racism by palming off government interventions elsewhere.  We cannot understand the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system outside the context of colonisation.


In the Aotearoa New Zealand colonial project, Māori have been “in the way”, obstacles for the police to overcome, rebels threatening the colonising process.  As colonisation embedded racism into the institutions and processes governing New Zealand, Māori were dispossessed.  This is not about individual police officers, but the systemic, endemic culture of policing in a colonised land.

New Zealand Police are the state enforcers, the sharp end of the colonial project in Aotearoa.  They invade when colonisation calls, arrest when the state needs.  We cannot make sense of a police killing in Taranaki today without the context of the Police invasion of Parihaka and illegal detention of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai (Taranaki and Te Ātiawa) and Tohu Kākahi (Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui).

We cannot make sense of the impact of an invasion of Te Urewera in 2007 without understanding the police killing of Tūhoe leader Rua Kēnana’s son during his arrest nearly a century earlier.


The 2007 report into Māori over-representation in the criminal justice system did not examine deaths in custody, taser use or police shootings.  What happens at the sharpest end of the colonial project, when the police use severe or lethal violence?

A recent ten year review by the Independent Police Complaints Authority (IPCA) of deaths in custody found just under half the deaths were of Māori prisoners.  The review argued that processes earlier in the criminal justice system was responsible for the disproportionate number of Māori deaths – that there was no additional (my emphasis) institutional racism.

“The disproportionate number of Māori deaths in police custody reflects the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system generally. The causes of this over-representation were not within the scope of the review.”[5]


The New Zealand Police Association actively campaigned for the introduction and national roll-out of tasers to increase the force at their disposal in the early 2000s. [6]

“A Taser is a hand-held, electro-muscular disruption device that is capable of incapacitating a person and causing pain through the application of an electrical current. For example, Tasers could be used by police to temporarily incapacitate a violent or combative person during arrest.  It can be used as an immobilisation device or simply as a device for inflicting pain on a person.”[7]

Police figures show that taser use has become increasingly heavily raced in the three years since initial trial, when there was little difference in taser use across ethnicity.  The data is based on rates per 10,000 apprehensions, which controls for earlier institutional racism.



Table 1: Ethnicity and Taser Use per 10,000 Apprehensions

Ethnicity Rate of taser use per 10,000 apprehensions[8][9]
1 December 2008 to 21 March 2010 22 March 2010 to 30 June 2012 1 January to 31 December 2013
NZ European 17 23 50
Māori 16 31 74
Pacific Peoples 18 39 91
Other 20

New Zealand Police are now tasering NZ Europeans three times as often as the introductory period; but for Māori and Pacifica people the rates are about five times as often as when tasers were first introduced.  It’s seems clear that as there is less scrutiny, the police are using tasers more often in general, but also that they feel more able to treat suspects differently based on ethnicity.  Additional institutional racism compounds earlier discrimination for Māori and Pacifica.

ethnicity and taser use

It should be noted that taser use is also heavily gendered.  In the trial period, men were three times more likely to be tasered than women; in the latest period this increased to four times more likely.  Men are eight times as likely to be tasered in the later time period than the early time period.[10]  Although there is no intersectional data combining ethnicity and gender, from these two data sets it’s clear that the police “immobilise or inflict pain” vastly more often on Māori and Pacifica men.

Table 2:  Gender and Taser Use per 10,000 Apprehensions

Gender Rate of taser use per 10,000 apprehensions
1 December 2008 to 21 March 2010 22 March 2010 to 30 June 2012 1 January to 31 December 2013
Male 19 32 162
Female 6 9 42


Examining patterns around lethal shootings by New Zealand Police is more difficult.  Unlike taser use or deaths in custody, there are no public reports with ethnicity routinely recorded.  The best source of data after 1995 is the IPCA reports of deaths involving the police.  Before 1995 the sole information on fatal police shootings is a New Zealand Herald article with one sentence synopses of the 13 killings since 1941.[11]  This article does not include the lethal shootings of 11 Samoans by New Zealand Police shipped to Apia in 1929 during a peaceful demonstration.[12]  It is only possible to determine the ethnicity of four of the 13 the article names through cross-referencing with media and historical records online.  All four are Māori.

Because of these information limitations, I am going to focus on police lethal shootings in the period the IPCA reports cover, from 1995 – 2015.[13]  There were 16 killings, 15 of which have completed IPCA reports. The IPCA is more likely to find no problems with police procedures than to identify concerns, let alone recommend any changes in procedures.  Racism or colonisation is not addressed in any report as a causative factor.[14]

Ethnicity is not identified in IPCA reports or media coverage for four of the 16 people.  This may indicate the people concerned are Pākehā, but there is no certainty.  Ethnicity is noted in passing in several IPCA reports rather than because it is a requirement.  Media coverage sometimes includes ethnicity, most often when family members of the person killed have concerns of racism.  Given these limitations, I could identify twelve of the sixteen shooting victims as men of colour. The fact that finding this information requires trawling through media coverage and reports is significant in itself.

Table 3: Ethnicity of Victims of Lethal Police Killings – 1995 -2015


Ethnicity of Victim Number Percentage
Māori 9 56%
Unknown 4 25%
Iraqi 1 6%
Samoan 1 6%
Tongan 1 6%



Including the use of force and lethal force by New Zealand Police strengthens the case for institutional racism beyond the “small, cumulative” acts already well-documented.  Even if deaths in custody may not provide evidence of additional institutional racism, the use of tasers and police shootings certainly do, particularly when men of colour are seen as a group.  Knowledge of institutional racism and its location in police use of severe and lethal force needs to inform all liberatory political agendas seeking to be intersectional – whether that be discussions of how to respond to gendered violence, attempts to address the criminalisation of people living in poverty or resistance to queer people’s experiences of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.  It also makes clear that any attempts to provide New Zealand Police with increased access to firearms – which continues to be on the agenda of NZPA spokesperson Greg O’Connor – should be resisted by those calling themselves anti-racist.  I hope the information gathered here contributes to further discussion and action.

Dedicated to those targeted by police racism, including family, whānau and communities who have lost loved ones due to lethal violence.

[1] Maxwell G. and Smith C., (1998), Police Perceptions of Māori: A report to the New Zealand Police and Te Puni Kōkiri, Victoria Link Ltd.

[2] Jackson, M., (2000), Steven Wallace: An Analysis of the Police Report, Peace Movement Aotearoa.

[3] This is an adaptation of the Power and Control wheel, developed to contextualise the ways in which domestic violence is experienced by victims.  Sourced from Came, H., (2012), Institutional Racism and the Dynamics

of Privilege in Public Health, University of Waikato.

[4] Department of Corrections, (2007), Over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system: An exploratory report.

[5] Independent Police Conduct Authority, (2012), Thematic Report: Deaths in Custody, A Ten Year Review.

[6] Buttle, J., (2010), The Case Against Arming the New Zealand Police Force, Department of Criminology, AUT.

[7] Crime and Misconduct Commission, (2008), Facts About Tasers, Brisbane, Australia.

[8] The first two columns are Ministry of Justice figures, accessed at http://www.justice.govt.nz/policy/constitutional-law-and-human-rights/human-rights/international-human-rights-instruments/international-human-rights-instruments-1/convention-against-torture/united-nations-convention-against-torture-and-other-cruel-inhuman-or-degrding-treatment-or-punishment-new-zealand-periodic-report-6/article-16/31-tasers

[9] New Zealand Police, (2014), New Zealand Police Annual Taser Report Number Two.

[10] Figures from sources above.

[11] New Zealand Herald, Oct 23 2008, Chronology of fatal shootings by NZ Police.

[12] http://samoaobserver.ws/editorial/5132-black-saturday   New Zealand Police used a machine gun to disperse the demonstration; in addition to the 11 Samoans killed, another 50 people were injured by gunshots and police batons on “Black Saturday”, 28 December, 1929.

[13] All reports from http://ipca.govt.nz/Site/publications/Default.aspx

[14] These limitations have been addressed in some depth for the IPCA report on the killing of Steven Wallace in Jackson, M., (2000), Steven Wallace: An Analysis of the Police Report, Peace Movement Aotearoa.

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