Opinion: legacies of colonialism live on in police brutality, here and around the world

By Anushka Britto

Tuesday June 2, 2020


I woke up scrolling the news on my phone on Wednesday morning last week to two things; a white woman walking her dog off-leash, called the police on a black man in Central Park was fired from her job on Tuesday, and Monday was National Sorry Day in Australia. Reading about these two different yet not unrelated things got me thinking about the history of colonialism around the world and how its legacy lives on in police brutality towards minorities or people of colour.

Growing up in New Zealand, I learnt Maori colours, numbers and body parts in primary school. My teachers used the Maori language interchangeably with English to welcome people, ask us to listen up “Whakarongo Mai”, and the Maori national anthem was always sung before the English. The Maori culture was, and is, still highly respected and honoured in the education system, reinforcing its importance and respect amongst the next generation of New Zealanders. Speaking to my peers in Australia, I learnt that they experienced no such cultural learning and awareness within schools. There was no question in my mind growing up, that New Zealand had a bicultural foundation, and going on to study race and identity as a young sociology major, I learnt of how countries around the world had experienced colonisation differently and the impact on their national identity. Amy Cooper, the Central Park dog-walker, brought to mind one other indicator of remnants from our colonial beginnings — that of police brutality, undue force or racial profiling of people of colour.

Australia has made leaps and bounds in trying to make amends for the mistreatment of Indigenous people, with an ongoing reconciliation process. National Sorry Day, which has been in place since 1998, is intended to remember and commemorate the injustices that were committed by the Australian government policies, forcibly separating children from their families to assimilate them into white Australian culture. Similarly, New Zealand had the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process and Canada celebrates National Indigenous Peoples Day on 21 June and the United States on 12 October.

In 2015-16, the Australian government spent $14.7 million in supporting Indigenous people through funding in mainstream programs such as Medicare, social security, child care benefits, university places and indigenous specific programmes like ABSTUDY, health programs and ranger programs to close the gap on the higher levels of disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people in Australia. While these are all positive moves in the right direction, the stories of police brutality against black people in the USA made me question how other measures of progress compare across countries with colonial roots; specifically the experiences of police brutality by indigenous people and minorities.

How police brutality against people of colour and minorities compares around the world

Amy Cooper called the police when a black man requested she leash her dog in the Ramble, a wooded area in Central Park, New York. In the video he uploaded, she says “I’m taking a picture and calling the cops. I’m going to tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life”. She has since apologised for her actions stating that she is “blessed” to have viewed the police as a protection agency but now realises that for people of colour this is not always the case. It is unclear whether Amy Cooper was aware of the impact her actions could have when she called the police, but it has long been acknowledged by the police and the public in the U.S that Black people are often treated with greater levels of force and police brutality, so it would be reasonable to assume she was highly aware of the racist calling card she was pulling, as a white woman accusing a black man of violence.

Through a study conducted by Frank Edwards from Rutgers University, it was found that “in the U.S, African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people”. As the police do not have a complete database of all police shootings with the race of people shot, the researchers used the verified data compiled on the website Fatal Encounters from 2013 – 2018 which found that roughly 1 in 1000 black boys and men will be killed by police in their lifetime compared to 39 out of 100,000 white men and boys. There are a lot of factors that can be considered in these studies. While Edwards’ study uses population as a benchmark to analyse the proportional use of force, Joseph Cesario’s study published in July 2019 argues that violent crime rates and the racial demographics of a location are a better indicator for determining the race of a victim in a police killing. Other factors to be considered include but are not limited to: whether the victim resisted arrest, whether the victim was armed, and whether the police involved were single-crewed — all of which may also influence the level of force used.

While Australia does not have the same data publicly available, and the use of guns for law enforcement is culturally very different to the US, a 2018 analysis of 10 years of data found that 407 Indigenous people had died in police or prison custody since 1991. The Guardian’s analysis found that the proportion of indigenous deaths where medical care was required but not given increased from 35.4% to 38.6%. In parallel, a study of data from the police database by Melbourne University professor found that African men around Melbourne suburbs Flemington and North Melbourne were roughly 2.5 times more likely to have their actions recorded by police than the rest of the population. While Brett Guerin has resigned from the police force following his racist comments on Africans being revealed, he was a highly respected member of the police force for 40 years and his attitudes may have been reflected in his leadership in this time.

In comparison, the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s investigation into the police in Toronto, Canada found in their interim report that a black person is 20 times more likely than a white person to be shot and killed by police, which is much higher than their representation in the population (8%). As Toronto police do not retain race-based data, Scott Wortley from the University of Toronto examined 244 investigations with police notes, case photographs and other information. The report found that about 70% of Special Investigations Unit Investigations between 2013 – 2017 into police shootings which resulted in a civilian’s death involved a black civilian.

JustSpeak, a youth movement ‘for transformative change in criminal justice’ in New Zealand found that if you’re Pakeha (White) and have no criminal record and encounter police, you are less likely to be charged or sent to court than someone who is Maori. Police are 1.8 times more likely to take legal action against Maori than Pakeha and this increases to 7 times more likely when that person has no police or corrections record either. Similar results were found in other countries. In the UK, black people make up 13% of London’s population however in 2018-19 were involved in 39% of the incidents where the Met used force. And in South Africa, the current COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown has fuelled racial tensions with the police and army meting out violence against black people for violations of lockdown requirements. The nation was also raised in the United Nation’s list of concerns on countries using violence to enforce lockdown requirements.

How we can learn from other countries with colonial roots

With a past deeply steeped in both colonisation and slavery, its legacy is evident in the statistics of police brutality against people of colour in the US. As I read of George Floyd, Eric Garner and 15-year-old Duane Christian, I consider how lucky I am to be in Australia. However, while Australia’s rates of police brutality are lower than the U.S or the UK, there are still opportunities for improvement. We cannot close our eyes to the stories of David Dungay, Kumanjayi Walker, Tanya Day and many others who have died in police custody.

For Australia, it makes sense to look to our neighbours across the Tasman for inspiration in other ways to challenge potentially racist views that are deeply entrenched in our society, consciously and subconsciously. There are key differences in the way that New Zealand has addressed its colonial history, some of which are due to its historical and constitutional differences. In August 2014, a Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples provided a supplementary submission titled ‘What can we learn from New Zealand for constitutional Recognition of Indigenous People’. It concludes that while the Indigenous situation in Australia is different to the situation of Maori in New Zealand, there is much that we can learn and many institutional ideas that we can adapt. It is unclear which of these recommendations have since been adopted by Australia, but what we can do is learn from initiatives around the world now. Perhaps this is the stage that Australia needs to set before it begins to address symptoms of racism in the police force and consider other aspects of closing the gap. We are a long way off from the police brutality seen in other countries around the world with racial undertones, however each and every person who experiences undue force and subjected to racial profiling is one too many.

New Zealand has no national New Zealand Day like Australians have Australia Day. The national holiday is Waitangi Day, which celebrates the signing of the treaty as New Zealand’s Founding Day. Although the treaty is not without its own criticisms and had years of land and truth reconciliation process to make amends for the way it was carried out, this founding constitutional document is symbolic of its bicultural heritage. In New Zealand, police are trialling an app called AWHI (Alternative Ways to Help with Intervention), which gives individual police officers the ability to refer people to social services instead of charging them and sending them to court. For example, if someone is caught driving without a license, they can use the app to refer them to a driving licencing programme. The app will also provide data on who gets referred to these programmes and who doesn’t, providing a measure of how individuals from different demographics are treated by the police. While in 2015, Victoria police became the first police force in Australia to define and prohibit racial profiling, in 2017, there were calls from a legal rights group ‘Police Stop Data Working’ group for Victoria Police to document the perceived ethnicity of everyone they stop, to tackle racial profiling.

Australia has come a long way in its reconciliation with Indigenous members of the community. However, there are still opportunities to improve and learn from the lessons in other countries around the world with similar histories. There is a lot more we could be doing to inspire confidence in the intention behind National Sorry Day and part of this includes re-educating people in positions of power such as the police force and building faith in our communities.

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