Police accused of racism over tactical use of pain on Māori

Police are being accused of racism after their own figures confirm officers are more likely to use pain to subdue Māori suspects than for other ethnicities.

Information released to the Herald under the Official Information Act shows officers resorted to the tactical use of pain to bring violent or resisting offenders under control nearly 1800 times in the last five years.

Māori – who make up 16.5 per cent of the population and 42 per cent of people charged with an offence – are subjected to painful force at a higher rate than other offenders – accounting for 49 per cent of all such cases.

Police bosses are rejecting the racism accusation, insisting that while officers often deal with violent or disturbed offenders, force is always a last resort and everyone interacting with police should be treated with respect.

The figures have sparked claims Māori are being unfairly targeted with excessive police force in what one commentator alleges is evidence of racism.

“These statistics are really telling about police’s philosophy with how to deal with Māori, which is basically to treat us like animals,” criminology doctoral candidate and People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) spokeswoman Emilie Rākete told the Herald.

“This is how you treat someone that is dangerous. This is sub-human treatment by police.”

Rākete claimed police tended to use pain during encounters with Māori at up to six times the rates of other ethnicities.

“There’s no other way to describe that as racist.”

Police are defending their use of force and deny claims of institutional racism, labelling such claims “inflammatory and offensive”.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said the number of reported incidents of pain compliance was incredibly low given the hundreds of thousands of serious incidents and arrests police attended – many involving violent, drunk and mentally disturbed people.

“These figures show that use of force is a last resort, and every effort is made to resolve matters without having to resort to using these techniques. However the reality is that to protect New Zealanders from violent people there will be times force has to be used.”

'No brain, no pain'

Pain compliance techniques involve officers using the “direct and intentional use of force” to cause pain to gain compliance in an arrest or control situation – “usually evidenced by the subject showing and/or verbalising pain”, police said.

The Herald asked what techniques were used to cause pain and what guidelines governed when pain compliance could be used by officers.

Police acting national manager response and operations Inspector Nic Brown refused to provide details, arguing doing so could prejudice the maintenance of the law, the prevention, investigation and detection of offences, and the right to fair trial.

Internationally, the techniques usually involve applying force to certain parts of the body such as wrists and arms, or pressure points around the neck and jaw.

Pain is used to force someone who is resisting to submit, but pressure should be relieved once the offender complies with an officer’s instructions.

American police website Officer.com warns that some suspects are “impervious to pain due to the mental or emotional state, drug or alcohol use, or simply an unusually high pain tolerance”.

“The obvious problem with pain compliance techniques is if the suspect does not feel pain, they aren’t persuaded to comply. As they say, ‘No brain, no pain’.”

New Zealand data shows police officers here reported using the pain techniques 1788 times in the last five years.

Counties Manukau police district had the highest reported tactical use of pain with 286 incidents, followed by Wellington (182), Auckland City (180), Canterbury (174), Central (172), Waitematā (159), Eastern (114), Southern (105), Northland (96) and Tasman (70).

Men were subject to much greater use of pain techniques than women – 1502 to 285 respectively.

Māori made up nearly half of all pain compliance recipients (876), followed by European (688), Pasifika (181), Asian (19), Middle Eastern, Latin American and African (17) and other (7).

Brown confirmed nearly 200 reports of injuries in suspects subjected to pain compliance, including broken bones, sprains, swelling and bruising, abrasions and cuts, head injuries, breathing problems, and a head and eye injury.

But he stressed not all the injuries were attributable to the pain techniques being used.

Some were potentially incurred “by a different use of handcuffs-restraints by the same officer, and not necessarily the one which utilised pain compliance”.

'Hard resistance'

Civil liberties lawyer Michael Bott said it was “nonsense” for police not to release information on the techniques employed by officers and situations when pain compliance was permitted.

“The reason they’re citing seems illogical.

“What’s secretive about twisting someone’s arm? I can’t see any explanation for not being upfront.”

He said more context was needed to understand whether officers were justifiably inflecting pain.

“You’d want to know are they just going in guns blazing and strong-arming someone, or is it in response to hard resistance.”

Bott also questioned the number of Māori being subjected to pain compared to other ethnicities.

Māori were already over-represented in a range of justice statistics in terms of arrests and prosecutions, Bott said.

“Pākehā overwhelmingly get greater use of the diversion scheme [where first time offenders avoid conviction] than Māori, and similar with discharge without conviction.”

Māori lawyer Moana Jackson said “the stats are sadly not surprising” and consistent with broader research into the relationship between Māori and the justice system.

Deputy police commissioner: iwi and community, Wally Haumaha, said everyone who interacted with police should be treated with respect.

Police were well trained in how to respond when faced with challenging and violent situations, and recognised that force was a significant power granted to officers.

“Police should always use the appropriate tactical decisions to safely resolve any situation. Our staff do their best to conduct themselves with professionalism and care, to ensure the safety of the community and their own safety.

“We don’t have all the answers as to why Māori continue to be over-represented in the justice system.

“However, we are working hard to get those answers by working with partners, community leaders and iwi so we can better understand what they are experiencing when they engage with police, and make sure that our communities are getting the support they need.”

'Lacking context'

Cahill told the Herald blunt statistics lacked important context about the offences and circumstances of each arrest.

“We know for instance Māori are over-represented in violent offending so intuitively it is more likely force would be required in arrests of those offenders.

“To continue to blame police for the over-representation of Māori in crime statistics ignores the fact that police are the people left to deal with the failures of many other parts of society that result in far too many Māori ending up in the justice pipeline.

“If New Zealand addresses its woeful family violence offending, education that fails Māori youth, and, the mental health crisis, there would be far fewer crisis events that result in police having to arrest Māori in the first place.”

Cahill rejected claims of racism, labelling Rākete’s comments “inflammatory and offensive rhetoric”.

The comments showed PAPA had no interest in being a meaningful part of the solution to Māori’s over-representation in the criminal justice system, he said.

“They prefer to be divisive and confrontational at the expense of meaningful dialogue and this is not an approach that will benefit those they claim to want to help.”

However, Rākete rejected arguments that Māori were more likely to be arrested and charged so were proportionally more likely to be subject to the tactical use of pain.

Māori’s over-representation in justice statistics reflected decades of over-policing in Māori neighbourhoods, she said.

“They can’t just say, ‘We’re charging a lot of brown people so we’re beating a lot of brown people’.”

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