“Armed cops mean dead Maoris”

IPCA findings cast doubt on the competence of armed police

Ata mārie, and welcome to this morning’s analysis edition.

“Armed cops mean dead Maoris”

Did you know the first New Zealand police officers were, in fact, militia men? In 1840 Governor Hobson’s sworn officers were part-police, part-military, responsible for enforcing the Crown’s directives and answering a call to arms in an emergency. The earliest New Zealand constables were, at best, a part-time law enforcement agency, helping keep the peace – badly – in Kororāreka. But at worst the first coppers were a mob of armed invaders, attacking Ngāti Ruanui in 1868 and Ngāi Tūhoe in 1869.

This is something every Māori knows in his or her bones. The coppers are another people’s police force. ‘Safer Communities Together,’ the police motto, is both a guarantee and a threat. Safe, sure, but whose safety are they guaranteeing? The answer is obvious enough, but worth stating for the record: the New Zealand state’s. Iwi and hapū? Not so much. Just ask the people of Ruatoki, or the whānau the police shut out in the so-called ‘Kawerau siege.’

Sometimes this is all a bit much for some New Zealanders. The police are sacrosanct. Polite people tend to keep their criticisms to themselves. But every now and then the police balls-up and the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) step in, whether criticising the Urewera raids or the ‘highly flawed’ tactics in the Kawerau siege. ‘AOS officers should never have entered Warren's family house,’ the IPCA found on Thursday.  

The ‘Warren’ here is Rhys Warren, the clown who blew apart an AOS rifle in 2016, nearly killing the two officers who entered the whānau homestead after shots were fired at a police spotter plane. The IPCA questions the decision-making leading up to this point, finding command and control lacking. The police identified the Warren homestead as the likely source of fire, sure, but were wrong to mount a military-like response. Other options were available.

The whānau said as much, to both police and media, pleading with the people in charge to resolve the situation according to ‘tikanga.’ Of course, the actual tikanga here is unclear - the last ‘siege’ happened in the 19th century – but what the whānau meant is clear enough: let us send in someone he trusts. The police would eventually agree, sending in former Kawerau sergeant (now Inspector) Warwick Morehu, but they did so long after they otherwise should have.    

The IPCA blames flawed tactics and poor decision-making for the siege, and they’re quite right. But special rules also apply to Māori. We’re a threat first, and police reply with their own. In 2016 a constable in Wellington threatened to arrest Parliament’s kaumātua for speaking te reo Māori during a police pull-over. This is perhaps innocuous enough, until you remember Māori are more likely to be apprehended and prosecuted by police than Pākehā.

In short: if you’re brown you’re more likely to be booked; if you’re brown you’re more likely to be put away; and if you’re brown you’re probably more likely to be shot at. “Armed cops mean dead Maoris,” an ex-sergeant told me in 2016. It’s a terrifying thought. The cops are good people - mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters like the rest of us - but the institution? It’s not our institution, so long as we identify with our iwi and hapū.

None of this is to say anything positive about Warren himself, someone whose conviction is, well, well-deserved. Instead it’s to say we should expect better from the police. They should not act like the militia they once were. They should not act as if Māori are a threat first and a people second. We were here first as iwi and hapū, and we’ll be here long after the police are abolished.