Police officers carry heavy, black guns.

Police

A year after George Floyd’s murder, New Zealand reckons with its own police reform

George Floyd’s death has raised awareness about problems with policing across the globe — but it’s not clear how much has changed.

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Armed police patrol the entrance to the Christchurch High Court for the final day in the sentencing hearing for Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, in Christchurch, New Zealand, Aug. 27, 2020.

Credit:

Mark Baker/AP/File photo

The video of police officers killing George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a global movement. A year after his death, people in places as far away as New Zealand are asking what impact the movement has had. 

To understand the answer to this question, it’s important to go back a few months before Floyd died — to Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019

Police Commissioner Mike Bush confirmed that a white nationalist had shot and killed 51 people at two mosques. New Zealanders were stunned. The country’s police force proposed a drastic step: Create armed police units. 

Related: Bloody police raid in Brazil leaves at least 25 dead

“We have nominally unarmed frontline police officers. They are all carrying guns, but they keep them in the car.”

Emilie Rākete, spokesperson, People Without Prisons Aotearoa

“That’s a bit unusual for New Zealand,” said Emilie Rākete, spokesperson for People Without Prisons Aotearoa, which advocates for the abolition of prisons in New Zealand. “We have nominally unarmed frontline police officers. They are all carrying guns, but they keep them in the car.”

Rākete’s group opposed the idea of armed police units, arguing that they would end up harassing Māori communities. People from those communities are already disproportionately policed and incarcerated.

Related: UN human rights office 'alarmed' over police violence in Colombia

“About a month before the final decision was made on armed police patrols, George Floyd was murdered,” Rākete said. Thousands protested in New Zealand. “And so there was a huge kind of upswelling of popular support for the campaign against armed police patrols that I don't think would have been there if he hadn't been [a part of] this popular public consciousness about police racism, about police killings.”

And they won. New Zealand police commissioner Andrew Coster shelved the proposal on June 9, 2020.

“It’s become clear that armed police teams do not align well with the style of policing that New Zealanders expect. ... As a result, we will not be continuing with them.”

Andrew Coster, police commissioner

“It’s become clear that armed police teams do not align well with the style of policing that New Zealanders expect,” Coster said at the time. “As a result, we will not be continuing with them.”  

Protesters in New Zealand had a strengthened sense of solidarity with others organizing across the world, said Tania Sawicki Mead, director of JustSpeak, a group devoted to criminal justice reform. 

“It didn't feel like a niche issue anymore in New Zealand,” she said.

But the coronavirus pandemic slowed the momentum, Sawicki Mead said. 

And, on June 19, 2020, a New Zealand police officer was shot and killed for the first time in a decade. Days later, a video went viral, showing police in Auckland beating a young Māori man who was arrested for graffiti vandalism

In August 2020, an official investigation confirmed that Māori are seven times more likely than white New Zealanders to face the use of force by police. 

In March, another report found that the New Zealand police force remains an old boys club, despite diversity efforts. And then, there was a new issue. Sawicki Mead said officers were caught creating a database of possible suspects without informed consent.

Related: International group of lawyers investigates US police brutality

“Police were roaming around different communities, just pulling over young people, most often young Māori, and photographing them with no explanation given."

Tania Sawicki Mead, director, JustSpeak

“Police were roaming around different communities, just pulling over young people, most often young Māori, and photographing them with no explanation given,” she said.  

Despite all of that, the New Zealand government is now proposing an expansion of police powers to seize firearms of organized criminals. That’s in response to a perceived increase in gang activity and shootings. 

“When we talk about targeting gangs, often what is being said is targeting Māori, even if people obviously won't say that out loud,” Sawicki Mead said.

Still, she’s hopeful that George Floyd’s death, and the ensuing protests in New Zealand, will help bring more accountability. Police have announced a long-term research project to uncover biases in their policies and procedures.

“I guess an inquiry is unlikely to tell us anything that we don't already know,” Sawicki Mead said. “But I think the degree to which police are participating in that process is an important change from where they were two years ago, which was basically denying the existence of racism within the force.”

Emilie Rākete of People Without Prisons Aotearoa is more skeptical. She points to a pattern of policing and racism that goes back to the 1980s. 

“They apologized to us for being racist then. And they say that they [would] get better. And then they did another report. They found that they were being racist. So they apologized to us and said they would get better. And they did another report. They found that they were being racist. So they apologized to us and said that they’ll get better,” she said. 

“They’re doing another report now — I'm really, really interested to hear what it finds. I think they might find that they’re racist, in which case, they will no doubt apologize to us and say that they're going to get better.” 

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