Category: police

Fabian Mika’s lawyer is (mostly) right

Fabian Mika’s lawyer is appealing Mika’s manslaughter sentence, suggesting his cultural background and upbringing should have be taken into account as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

It looks like this is being met with the predictable outrage when anyone notes there’s still ethnic inequality in NZ, coupled with the usual panic whenever someone suggests people’s lives are more complicated than just personal choice.

The judges are no doubt right to point out the logistical difficulties of the lawyer’s idea. Nonetheless, the lawyer’s argument touches on a serious problem with punishment/the ‘justice’ system in general: it only responds to individuals for their individual choices. But no individual choice happens in a vacuum.

The justice system doesn’t deal with the wider social determinants of individual choices. In many ways, it can’t: it falls outside of the justice system’s purview to deal with (for example) economic inequality, the chief cause of high violent crime rates.

But the ‘justice’ system should at least acknowledge that these social determinants are very much unequal from one person or group to another.

You can accurately predict from someone’s class, ethnicity, or family situation that they’re a lot more likely to end up in jail than I am. (Or more likely to have a partner or parent in prison). That’s not fair, and it’s not chosen.

Yes, convicted criminals have made choices, I’m not denying that. But the social determinants of crime and punishment are true too, and too often we deny that.

One of the first lessons you learn studying criminology is that if you’re disadvantaged in society in general, you’re also disadvantaged at every stage of the crime and punishment process:
– examples of crime vs. other examples
– opportunities for crime vs. other opportunities
– likelihood of being in extreme need
– laws and definitions of crimes
– types of crimes you’re likely to commit
– likelihood of being suspected/pursued by police
– likelihood of being caught
– access to good legal help
– likelihood of being convicted
– harshness of sentencing for your crime
– your specific sentencing
– how you’re treated by society after your punishment

So I definitely think someone’s experiences and social position should be considered among the mitigating/aggravating factors in sentencing. But that only deals with the tip of the iceberg of the problem: socio-economic inequality leading to manifold inequalities in crime and punishment.

[trigger warning] Sad reminders of how sexist and violent NZ still is


Men haven’t been very good to women in NZ lately.

The list of men who have used and abused Bevan Chuang in the course of the Brown-Chuang-Wewege-Cook-Slater-Palino affair is long and getting longer. Some were apparently motivated by mid-life crises and delusions of grandeur, others by attempts at pharisaical political smear campaigns… but they’ve all used a person’s life for their own ends (and apparently they’ve all lied about it). I don’t think I trust any of these men with high political office or media profile. Chuang herself doesn’t seem to have acted particularly well, but nobody deserves what she’s been through.

Meanwhile, Labour’s decision to phase in a rule ensuring 50% female MPs was met with the predictable panic that men are losing some of their privilege. This was typified by Patrick Gower, TV3’s gutter-journalist political editor who feigned alarm about demotions of male MPs (note this excellent critique he pretty much ignored). His numbers actually only show that IF Labour’s party vote is as low in 2017 as it was in 2008, and IF no male MPs other than Ross Robertson retire before then, TWO male MPs may have to leave Parliament so Labour can achieve gender equality (if any male MPs would object to that, good riddance).

Worse than Gower’s shoddy maths is his implication that political parties are male-dominated because of ‘merit’ rather than structural injustice. And his suggestion that 50% women in Labour is a problem but 75% men in National presumably isn’t. And his leaping to the defence of poor, persecuted privileged male MPs instead of highlighting the systemic gender inequity Labour’s quotas are designed to address.

But the worst, of course, is the Roast Busters rape club.

The existence of such a group is abhorrent. As is their ability to publicly boast about it.

As is police traumatising, blaming and ultimately ignoring complainants. As is their inaction after 2 years, 4 complaints, and ample opportunities for evidence. (Compare this to their shoot-first-sort-out-legality-later approach to shutting down people criticising them). As is the way they lied and blamed their inaction on victims not being “brave enough” to lodge proper complaints. As is the fact that their only accountability is an “independent” group of ex-cops who inevitably understand and sympathise with police. As is the fact that we’ve known for years the police have a rape problem and they’ve repeatedly failed to address it.

As is media personalities’ victim-blaming and collusion with rape myths (and passing them on to their kids as well as their radio audience).

As are politicians’ halfhearted responses and John Key equivocating about whether it’s really rape or just immature behaviour “that’s, in my view, totally unacceptable.”

As is their school’s inaction.

As is media/public figures calling it under-age sex or group sex or mischief or immoral or silly instead of what it is – rape.

Worst of all is our ubiquitous rape culture that allows all this to happen. It’s part of the same patriarchy that leads to Len Brown and Cameron Slater et al using Bevan Chuang, and Patrick Gower complaining that men are losing their privilege. We can’t just blame the direct protagonists. All of us, especially middle-class educated white Western heterosexual cisgender Christian men like me, have to accept responsibility for the ways we’ve contributed to a kyriarchal culture that dominates, discriminates, dehumanises and, ultimately, rapes.

The only positive to come out of all of this is are the small signs of hope that rape culture may be starting to change. This could be a vital tipping point in awareness that we have a problem. But the work of addressing it is just beginning.

Guy Fawkes, Parihaka and the morals of the stories

Thinking about Guy Fawkes a.k.a. Parihaka Day yesterday, I started wondering what’s actually represented by the debate over what to commemorate on November 5th.

The shallowest way of looking at it is to say that it’s a debate between sparkly explosive things and politics/history/thinking.  But it takes only a little imagination to realise that we could set up a fireworks tradition on any night of the year we wanted; Matariki for example.  So really this is just saying lazy status quo versus politics/history/thinking.

A deeper way of looking at it is as a debate between NZ historical awareness and imported British history and culture.  Which is true enough.  (This seems to be how this Stuff poll interprets it; in which case it’s darkly funny that 63% of people say “No, we already have Waitangi Day”).

But the best way I can think of to understand it is to see Guy Fawkes Night vs. Parihaka Day as a debate between two images of violence, two ways of dealing with terrorism and two myths of how to achieve peace.

Guy Fawkes Night embodies the dominant story, the myth of redemptive violence, Thomas Hobbes’ theory of the state, the plot of kids’ cartoons and CSI/NCIS/SVU/etc… It’s the idea that there are violent chaotic baddies everywhere, threatening our stability and our way of life… but, never fear, there are also good strong people and institutions, and the way to get peace and safety is for these good strong people to violently suppress the baddies and maintain order from the top down.

Guy Fawkes himself had this kind of vision for society, which is why he wanted to blow up the king and Parliament; but the king and Parliament’s vision was almost as bad, and theirs is the one that prevailed and the one that’s celebrated.  As much as it’s lost its meaning now, traditionally Guy Fawkes Night has been the central festival of British patriotism, whipping up a frenzy of love and gratitude for the Crown which represents all that is good and safe, and an equally unthinking and passionate hatred for its enemies, who represent chaos and danger.

Parihaka Day embodies a very different story.  In this story there are also dangerous forces of chaos, but the solution isn’t as easy as calling in the Crown to subdue them.  In this story, the Crown aren’t the protectors from terrorism and the enforcers of order; like in Shelley’s classic poem The Masque of Anarchy, they themselves are the terrorists threatening peaceful people’s ways of life.  In this story, the way to deal with violence and chaos and danger is for little people to have the wisdom to identify it at the centres of power instead of just on the margins, and the courage to oppose it with stubborn love.  Unlike Guy Fawkes or the cartoons, there are no easy happy endings in this story… a grassroots, unenforced peace doesn’t always ‘win’, as it didn’t for Te Whiti and Tohu, but if we all came to the party, including the conscripts on the other side, it couldn’t lose.

So I think it’s what Parihaka Day represents, more than the public’s love of pretty explosions, that’s holding us back from from establishing an official Parihaka Day on November 5th.  Peace is just too dangerous for the powerful when it’s not a peace imposed by them.

The “science of crime”

Crackdown on Golden Mile (Blair Ensor and Jody O’Callaghan, 23/08/2012)

A third of Wellington’s crime takes place along the “Golden Mile” [between Parliament and Courtenay Place] … Last year 5753 reported offences were in the Golden Mile hot spot, out of 16,627 across the city.

Police revealed the figures yesterday as they announced a multi-agency crime-fighting strategy … [of] police taking control of Wellington City Council’s network of CCTV cameras, more officers on the beat, a focus on the “science of crime”, and working with other city agencies.

The initiative is part of the police’s new Prevention First model, which aims to reduce crime by 13 per cent by 2015.

Like their Christchurch counterparts a week ago, the Wellington police and media have been talking about something of which they’re profoundly ignorant – criminology.

The police officers who walk up the hill from the Golden Mile to the university to study their optional police criminology courses should* be learning on the first day that “reported crime” and police crime statistics are a wildly unreliable measure of real criminal activity. When the vast majority of crime is never reported, investigated or prosecuted, police crime figures will inevitably say far more about where police target than about where crime happens.

(* I say “should”. Actually, I know a guy who used to tutor the police students, and a disappointingly high proportion would argue in their essays that police statistics are in fact a reliable measure of crime, even though all research says the opposite.)

If they kept paying attention after that, they might learn that the most likely type of crime to never be apprehended is white collar crime, the crime of the rich and powerful, which by many accounts is a far, far bigger problem than blue collar crime. However, only a tiny fraction of law enforcement and penal attention is paid to it.

They might go on to learn that the most important factor determining whether we’ll have safer communities or anti-social behaviour isn’t what the police do or don’t do… far more important are wider socio-economic factors happening at the top of the cliff, regardless of what happens at the bottom. If they want to focus on “Prevention First”, they might realise that the best way for a society to reduce crime by 13% is to reduce economic inequality by the same amount.

All of which leads me to believe that if police really were taking the “science of crime” seriously, when they came back down the hill from the university, a lot more of them would stop at The Terrace and Parliament than at Courtenay Place.

[Edit: My friend who tutored the police students told me of a sad development that renders the premise of this blog obsolete, but its point unfortunately all the more relevant: “The VPEP contract was not renewed at the beginning of the year, so the police no longer get the opportunity to learn this stuff”]

Lower-than-expected crime rates should be expected, and so should police PR

Photo by Stephen Gardiner

Red zone private security costs $1000 a day (Charlie Gates, 6 August 2012)

Christchurch police credit the private security guards for averting a feared crime wave as residents abandoned red-zone suburbs …
Security guards patrol the red zone night and day, inspecting Cera-owned properties and reporting suspicious activity to the police. The private security is bolstered by community patrols and special policing …
”One of the things we were worried about after the quake was the potential for social unrest,” [Senior Sergeant Roy Appley] said. ”It would have been anticipated that there was a good chance that crime and other social issues would come to the fore. We would have thought that the chance of burglaries would be higher. It hasn’t seemed to in great numbers.”

Does anyone else find it a little spurious that the police are claiming credit for themselves and their untrained buddies for the fact that reality hasn’t matched their own uneducated guesses of a crime wave in the red zone?

Police were worried about a surge in crime after the earthquake, particularly burglaries.  But where do these fears come from?  They might as well be saying “I watch a lot of TV, and I read Lord of the Flies in high school, and I expected high crime”.  Or even more accurately, “The unquestioned assumptions I’ve passively inherited from my culture line up closely with the thought of Thomas Hobbes, and I expected high crime”.

It may come as a surprise to some people, but police are not actually criminological researchers.

If our journalists were actually journalists, the natural response to this police PR would be “what reliable peer-reviewed research shows that crime will rise in post-natural-disaster areas, or that security guard patrols can reverse this?”

If that question had been raised, it would have become abundantly clear that research in fact shows nothing of the sort.

Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell compiles evidence from disaster sociology and disasters around the world to show that communities do not in fact descend into chaos after disasters, as predicted by our Hobbesian assumptions.  In fact, while disasters certainly disrupt the normal operations of industrial capitalism, civil society often ends up being strengthened as people unite to respond and look after each other.

Solnit also shows that looting is so over-exaggerated that it can be called one of the biggest myths of natural disasters, and that the public panic feared by police is simply not an observable phenomenon – despite the much-publicised reports from the New Orleans Superdome, which were later quietly revealed to be total fabrications.  Far more common is ‘elite panic’ where governments, police and military are so scared of public chaos that they impose martial law and instruct their underlings to shoot suspected looters on sight.

Fortunately, we haven’t observed anything like this in Christchurch, even with Gerry Brownlee’s draconian emergency powers.  But we shouldn’t be surprised that we also haven’t observed the chaos and crime that the police assumed would eventuate.

And the reason we haven’t observed this is not because of the sterling efforts by police and security guards.

Yes, the security patrols have probably made some difference in keeping crime down.  Similarly, the way red zone residents are informally keeping an eye on their neighbourhoods will have made some difference.

But criminological research tends to demonstrate that the level of policing/security enforcement is only ever a minor determinant of crime rates – far more important are broader socio-economic factors like inequality and disconnectedness.  We have to look at factors like these if we want to know why crime has risen in New Zealand since the 80s, but hasn’t risen much in Christchurch since 2010.

So it’s dishonest, self-serving and most likely inaccurate for police to claim credit for the fact that red zone crime rates are lower than their own guesstimates.