Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Some thoughts on the British Labour Party

I posted this on my Te Whare Whero Facebook page some time back. It's a compilation of some replies I made to a post on a dear friend's FB page. It is about the contest for leadership of the British Labour Party but has direct relevance to us in NZ. 

Some people argue against Jeremy Corbyn for leader of the British Labour Party because he's too old. This is foolish and misses the all important point that, if Corbyn can lead the British LP to become the party of progress and build a genuine mass base, progressive younger people will come through to take over the leadership. 

More importantly, no single person leads a political party, a company or a country. However useful it is for the Right (and some sections of the Left) to create the notion of the all-powerful single leader, it's always a team effort.

The only way to counter the enormous and increasingly destructive power of corporate capitalism and its servant state, is through a genuine mass movement. The greatest threats to building such a mass movement are the tendency of sections of the Left to indulge themselves in infantile and destructive sectarian squabbling, and the tendency of significant numbers of others to write it all off as just 'too hard' because the Right has sucked too many people into a state of self-indulgence and stupidity so we might as well all just give up and let them get on with it.

If it's 'human nature' to be greedy and self-seeking, how come there are people who not only help out those who are less fortunate, but who fight - and die - for a better, fairer world? According to the bleak vision of human nature as inherently competitive and self-serving - altruism, self-sacrifice and the struggle for a better world shouldn't happen, except as a strategy for self-advancement. 

The fact is that it's as much 'human nature' to be cooperative, compassionate and caring about others as it is to be cruelly competitive and self serving. The problem is how to boost the former in order that the latter ends up in the 'dustbin of history' along with the patriarchal order that gave rise to it. 

The notion of humans as inherently selfish and greedy is a product of Right-wing ideology - it justifies a world order that is based on individualism, selfishness and greed. It's the creator and motivator of the mindset that turns the phrase 'do-gooding' into an insult. 

Supporting the LP in Britain is not a question of blind loyalty - quite the reverse. It's as much pragmatism as anything. 

People have a deep need for something to believe in, for there to be a light at the end of the corporatist tunnel. Corbyn and the people supporting him are shining a light and it's beginning to break through the awful torpor that corporatism has created and nurtured - and that can only be to the good. 

And that is why the Right is turning themselves inside out to damn him. The best thing any progressive person in Britain can do is join the only party which, at present, has the potential to be a mass movement to make it work for the people and, through it, make the state work for the people not for Korporate Kleptomaniacal Kapitalism - my new slogan.

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The broad Left has been in self-destruct mode since the1980s. It's time we stopped being self-indulgent ninnies and realised that the only way little people can ever win against the might of the state and the forces the state works for, is through combination. Why else do the Right expend so much time and energy, not just physically destroying collectives, but destroying the very idea of them?

People of conscience really don't have a choice because it's not just us, it's the entire planet that's at risk. 

Even if the LP do not win the next election, every expression of resistance to the current destructive world order sends out positive messages to the world's oppressed and exploited people. 

Corporate capitalism stole socialism's internationalist ideology and went global - it's time we took it back.

An open letter to Tony Veitch

Dear Tony,

The current media storm you're at the centre of started when you made a comment about an incident in a rugby match which, if made by anyone else, very likely would have been viewed as a harmless observation on the referee's odd distinction between a 'punch' and a 'push with a fist'.   

I hadn't seen the meme until the controversy blew up but I think it's no more offensive than it was insightful or witty. 

However, some people - no doubt remembering the time when you made a clear distinction between a 'kick' and a 'push with a foot' - thought you were advocating or trivialising violence, and criticised you for it on your Facebook page. The details of your domestic violence conviction were circulated and much was said about your failure to take responsibility for your actions. The fact that you were widely perceived to have failed to 'own' your actions and to have blamed your victim is what has given this so much traction. 

You then posted an emotionally charged comment on your Facebook page attacking your critics and seeming to taunt them with your popularity and success, and you referred to the domestic violence as having occurred in the context of a 'hideous relationship'. It was an unfortunate choice of words. 

Social media - as it is wont to do - immediately split into warring factions. 

On one side are those who think that what you were charged with in 2009 wasn't your fault; it wasn't a serious assault; your ex-partner exaggerated her injuries; it was in the past and should stay there, and anyone who raises it now has a dodgy political agenda of some sort. 

On the other side, are those who see you as one of those men who say they're sorry for inflicting violence on their partner but whose subsequent conduct shouts the opposite, and who like to cast themselves in the role of a hapless victim of a scheming / unreasonable / mad / cheating / domineering woman. Take your pick of adjective. 

The upshot of it all is that you're back in the sort of spotlight you don't like -  one that's harsh, unflattering and too revealing.

I must confess that I never listen to you or read anything you write and never have; and, in terms of your work as a sports commentator or 'news personality', you seldom come up in the sorts of commentary I read or the conversations I have.  

But I had formed an opinion about you which predates your domestic violence conviction.  It's of course that infamous statement you made on radio about Serena Williams :

"Do you know where apes one from? She's a reminder."

That wasn't just racist, cruel and misogynistic -  it was also profoundly stupid.  It was even more stupid than your boss's claim - after he told you to apologise on air - that what you had said was 'not a racial slur.'   

This was the first time you got handed the career equivalent of a get out of jail free card.  

But, perhaps you learned from that. Perhaps you understood just how harmful and hurtful a statement like that is.  Perhaps you realised how very lucky you were that you worked for an organisation, and appealed to an audience which had a very high tolerance for that sort of grossly unprofessional and unpleasant behaviour. 

Or perhaps not.

Enough has been said about your domestic violence conviction without me revisiting it in detail apart from saying that a man who kicks a woman in the back when she's on the ground is giving vent to a depth of rage and contempt that says a great deal about him, and none of it good.

The fact that you were charged with recklessly injuring your partner instead of a more serious charge such as actual or grievous bodily harm was due to your celebrity and the considerable efforts that had been made to ensure that, in the court of popular opinion, you'd been found not guilty. It was the Kiwi equivalent of a plea bargain.  The dropping of most of the charges and your guilty plea to a lower order of offence than a less influential man would have faced, allowed you to continue to rebuild your life and to build your profile as a wronged man.

That was your second get out of jail free card - a more literal one that time.  Had you the wisdom and the heart to play it right you could have come up from it smelling sweet. But, there was always that hint of angry arrogance that makes some people doubt the authenticity of your public persona.

However, I firmly believe that, whatever the crime - if the person who committed it has faced up to what they did, wants to make amends and be a better person and citizen - they have the absolute right to live their lives without having their past used against them.  We don't have double jeopardy in our court system and nor should we have it in the court of social media.

A lot of your supporters profess to believe the same but I'd lay odds that many of those who shout loudest about your right to a second chance would happily deny that to others. I've no doubt that there would be certain sorts of crimes committed by certain sorts of people that many of your supporters would never forgive and that they would rub the perpetrator's face in their past whenever they had the chance, rejecting mitigating circumstances as 'PC nonsense', and self-righteously demanding maximum and on-gong retribution. 

In the interests of fairness, it must be said there are some like that among your critics as well. 

 In NZ the physical and emotional battering of women by men is as commonplace as it is indefensible. I don't expect you to speak out against domestic violence although it would be great if people like you used your considerable influence to such an end - recognising that the soil in which male violence against women and children grows is well watered by the run off from laddish, 'locker room' behaviour - that striving for one of the 50 shades of machismo - that is still prevalent in some parts of the sporting world and which flows into the consciousness and conduct of affluent and powerful men as well as poor and relatively powerless ones. 

Sometimes violent behaviour by men towards women has its roots in a personal insecurity and inadequacy.  Sometimes it occurs when a narcissist's sense of aggrandisement or entitlement has been challenged. Sometimes it's when power over women is an illusory compensation for a wider social and economic powerlessness. 

Whatever the root cause - it's of little comfort to the person who's on the receiving end.

If I tread on someone's foot and break it, even if I didn't mean to do it, and even if I say I'm sorry, it still hurts and it takes time to heal. 

If I tread on someone's foot and break it and I don't apologise, or my apology is insincere, or I blame the person for getting in my way, I add insult to injury and may delay healing. 

If I deliberately stamp on someone's foot and break it and then claim that - not only did they put their foot under mine but, in so doing, they caused me to hurt my foot and damaged my Italian shoes which cost me a lot of money, I can hardly complain if people call me a liar and a bully.

Creating the Myths

The piece that follows was originally written in late 2006 – pre-blog - after a major story in The Press about a policing operation aimed at ‘Maori crime families’.

The article offended me deeply for its cavalier treatment of statistics and its failure to deal with the ethnic and class dimensions of the social problems it purported to address.

I wrote a reply to it and sent it off to various politicians and publications. It was met with a resounding silence. 

The following year the writer of the Press article won a Quantas Media Award for it.  

I was reminded of my piece when I heard Anne Tolley on RNZ, raising the issue of compulsory contraception for women who have children who are deemed to be at risk. Given the socio-economic profile of the sort of women Tolley is referring to, it's obvious that a disproportionate number of those affected by such a move would be Maori. 

It's also obvious that such a move will be very popular with some people and seen as regrettable but necessary by a large number of others. 
The targeting of certain women for contraception or sterilization is an issue that pops up again and again, as politicians test the waters to see if the 'public' will accept it this time round.  It is ground that has been stomped over before by such right-wing luminaries as Michael Laws, David Garrett and Paula Bennett.

The way it works is you create a sub-set of society and you give it a label - the feral underclass. Those who belong to it can be caricatured and stereotyped at will.  They don't have relationships, they have ‘sexual unions’; they don't have children, they ‘breed’ or ‘spawn’.

Such language is not accidental – it not only dehumanizes, it pushes these people so far into the social distance that they become an anonymous, amorphous mass but one that is seen as so threatening, the coercive arms of the state are given free rein to deal with it as they see fit.

                                                          + + + + + + + + +

In The Press's full frontal expose of Canterbury's top 10 crime families (2nd Dec 2006), it was revealed that all the families are Maori.  Leading the Mainland section, the story continued across two pages. In places it read like a tabloid screamer, peopled with 'faceless felons' and 'rampant recidivists' who are operating in a district-wide 'crime empire'.

A diagram was used to illustrate the composition and activities of one of the families, which comprises 26 individuals across three generations. The type and scale of this one family's criminal activities were said to be typical of the 'top 10 families' and are the motivation and justification for an 'in-your-face' policing strategy of round-the-clock surveillance and intensified bail and vehicle checks.

How 'typical' the type and scale of this family's activities actually are must be judged against the fact that, according to the article, it comprises 20.5% of the targeted offenders, and has been charged with 37% of the offences.

A side bar stated in prominent type, that "the criminal branch of one of Canterbury's 10 worst offending families which are being targeted by Police…. clocked up 673 charges for burglary, assaults, car thefts and drugs, of which 284 were in Canterbury." (My emphasis)

This family had actually been charged with a total of 246 offences in those categories (36.5% of the total) of which 88 were for burglary, 39 for assault, 103 for vehicle theft, and 16 for drugs offences.

Why did The Press claim so prominently that all the charges fell into those 4 categories?  

As journalists know, headlines powerfully influence people's responses to, and understanding of the facts contained in the text. Journalists also know that an article may mislead as much by what it doesn't say, as by what it does say.

Over one third of the 673 total charges fell into the category of 'other', which includes minor traffic offences, breaches of court orders, probation, bail conditions etc.

This is certainly statistically significant. It is also journalistically significant in that at least some of the offences in this category could have resulted from the policing strategy itself. But the article does not even acknowledge this as a possibility.

Nor does it provide a breakdown of the 42% of charges that have been clocked up in Canterbury. This is a surprising omission, given the way the family has been conducting itself here would be relevant to the article and of interest to local people.

To give such prominence to 36.5 % of the charges and to ignore the possible significance of 34%, is either negligent, or deliberately skewing data to beef up the story.

But these are not my only concerns.

The cost to the tax payer, and youth offending are another two issues of public concern which the article highlighted.

It stated that 127 individuals from the 10 families have 'been apprehended for' 1808 offences over 5 years and, in total, they have cost the country $53m.

The article also stated that people under 19 comprise 33% of the district’s population but account for almost half of all apprehensions, the costs of which are calculated separately from those of adults.

There is no detail on how many of the 127 individuals from the 10 families are youth offenders but, if the national average applies, around 60 or so young members of the families have been charged with around 900 offences.

These youth offenders in the 10 families cost around 87% of the total cost of the families' offending last year but account for just under 3% of the District's total apprehensions for burglary, 4.4% of vehicle thefts and 1.6% of theft from vehicles.

The article didn't state what proportion of the District's remaining 97% of burglaries, 95.4% of vehicle thefts and 98.4% of thefts from vehicles were committed by the adult members of these crime families.

But, as the total adult offending for these families last year cost $900k against the $6.1m for youth offending, we can assume that it was not very much.  

If so, how much attention is being paid to all the other criminals who are obviously pretty busy throughout the District?

There were many other obvious flaws and omissions in the article. We were not told what the overall clear up rate is for the highlighted offences, or how much the initiative is affecting clear up rates. Nor were we told how much the strategy is costing, and whether it is diverting police away from other crimes.

The analysis of the significant civil liberties issues was cursory as was the attention paid to the 'diversion strategy' aimed at young non-offenders within the families.

The cartoon used to illustrate the article, which appeared to be a group of fat, anthropomorphised dogs in burglar masks, was gratuitous and distasteful. 

Some language was emotive and inflammatory, for example, a woman was said to have had 'sexual unions' that 'spawn' criminals. Why use such morally charged words?

The unusually high profile given to the story and its potential to confirm negative stereotypes and to fuel racism demand a far more rigorous examination of the politics of the situation, the statistics and the assumptions flowing from them.

It is reasonable to ask, would this story have been given the same prominence and form if all the 'rampant recidivists' had white faces?  

A senior police officer was quoted as saying: 'sadly the 10 families are Maori families. It a sad indictment that so many Maori people want to make a difference to their Maori community and every time they hear crimes on the radio… they think 'I hope that wasn't a Maori'.

If the word Pakeha is substituted for Maori the statement sounds absurd because white people are seldom highlighted on the grounds of their ethnicity in this way.

There are crimes that mostly poor people do, and there are crimes that only well-off people can do. An intellectually and politically meaningful analysis of crime would look at rates of similar crimes within populations with similar socio-economic profiles.

Maori are over-represented in the lower socio-economic categories and Maori children are significantly over-represented in poverty statistics. We are told that Maori are over-represented in crime statistics, but what this article doesn't even ask is whether they are over-represented in apprehensions and convictions for some types of crime, and equally or under-represented in others?  For example, what are the offending rates for Maori in serious fraud cases?

The public's perception of and reaction to crime, like that of the police and other branches of the criminal justice system, is often affected by both conscious and unconscious prejudice. Judgments about the degree of seriousness and of mitigation enter into definitions of the crime itself, perceptions of the criminal and how he or she should be treated.

Leaving aside all the examples of corporate and serious organised crime where the really big money is made, the fact is that most 'everyday, law-abiding citizens' commit crimes. People steal from their employers, in the obvious ways of stealing equipment, materials, goods etc and in less obvious ways of making personal phone calls, inflating expense claims, spending time on personal business, taking unwarranted sick leave etc.

Many people speed, drink and drive, drive their vehicles over environmentally protected areas, illegally dump rubbish, avoid paying GST and income tax, and inflate insurance claims. The car fetishists who make rural people's lives a misery in Canterbury break the law in dozens of ways every week – with virtual impunity.

Very often, not only do the perpetrators of this sort of 'white collar' crime get away with it, they don't even think they're doing anything wrong.

This policing strategy is likely to glamourise and/or make martyrs of what appear on the whole to be habitual but essentially petty criminals. It may marginally improve the District's poor clear up rates for some crimes. It will inflate police officers' pay packets. It will, inevitably divert resources away from other areas.

Possibly more importantly than any of that, like the 'sus' laws in Britain in the 1980s, this policing strategy and the sort of coverage given it by The Press will be highly effective – not in stopping crime but in turning it into a race issue.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

What sort of police service do we want?

On September 8th 2015, a 25 year-old man was shot by the New Zealand police in circumstances that strongly suggest he was in the grip of a personal crisis. Had he wanted to kill people he could easily have done so but nothing in what eye-witnesses have said initially, suggests he intended to harm anyone. On the contrary, some witnesses reported that he seemed to be on the point of putting his gun down. 

We don't yet know the details of what happened but the end result was that Pera Smiler became the 3rd person to be fatally shot by the New Zealand police in the space of just 4 months, and the 7th to be shot in the past 5 years.

By the time the coroner's inquest, the police internal enquiry and the Independent Police Complaints Authority (IPCA) report are completed, the public will have moved on and chances are the only people who will remember much about the case will be his whanau and friends, and people who take an interest in the criminal justice system.

The lunatic fringe of the Right, as exemplified by their self-appointed mouthpiece, Cameron Slater, quickly took up its usual position of expressing uncritical support for the Police in advance of any formal investigation. Slater railed against what he sees as a ‘soft on crime’ bias in the media as exemplified by a couple of stories that presented the dead man as a human being. He called Smiler  an ‘idiot’ and a ‘scumbag’ and mocked the family’s grief with a spiteful truculence that is as typical of him as it is at odds with his professed Christian beliefs.

This vitriolic and populist posturing has a clear ideological agenda and there are other, seemingly more reasonable, voices that also uncritically support the police in advance of any investigations.

Whilst police command is usually circumspect about what it says in the immediate aftermath of a major firearms incident, Greg O’Connor, the president of the Police Association, is always on the news immediately - even before the body of the dead person has been removed from the scene - claiming that it was a justified shooting and calling for all police to be armed, and for an increase in police numbers, powers and resources. 

O’Connor can't be faulted for defending his members and for seeking to protect and improve their pay and conditions but, when he pre-empts due process and seeks to influence public opinion about critically important political issues like arming all police officers and the use of lethal force, he is well out of line.  The fact he continues to do so strongly implies that those who manage and oversee the police are happy for him to try to influence the public in this way.

When a police officer dies or is injured as a result of a criminal act, the same calls are made, but much more stridently. The intention is to fuel the moral panic that spreads from claims that there is a steady increase in lawlessness in general and violent crime in particular, and that, as criminals these days are more likely to carry guns, unless all police officers routinely carry guns, both they and the public will be at a higher risk of death and injury.

In light of the uses to which this moral panic is put, it’s important to be as clear as possible just how much at risk the public and the police actually are, and what sort of people the police shoot in their defence of the public.

How violent is New Zealand?

Many people believe that the homicide rate is an indicator of the general levels of violence and that the murder rate is continually increasing in NZ. However, police statistics show that, whilst there was a significant increase between 1985 and 1992 (inflated by multiple murders) the murder rate has been steadily dropping. 

“Before the 1970s about 10 murders a year were reported to the police. Numbers of reported murders rose in the 1970s and 1980s, with an average of 65 a year between 1985 and 1992. Reported murders have been stable since 2000, averaging 54 a year.”  (1)

About 40% of all homicides are domestic. Violent crime in general tends to increase in times of high social stress and among sectors of the population most vulnerable to that stress. Who is most likely to commit a homicide, who gets charged and with what, whether a case gets to court and a verdict of guilty is found, what sentence is handed down, how the case is presented in the media - are all influenced by complex factors of ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, gender etc. 

Understanding and formulating the best response to these complex factors is not helped by simplistic and sensationalist explanations from media and the law and order brigade.

How well equipped are police officers?

Armed offenders in NZ mostly use sawn-off shotguns and rifles – the sort that can be purchased fairly easily from sporting equipment outlets and gun warehouses.  Of the 31 people shot by NZ police since 1941, 13 were carrying rifles of some sort, most commonly .22s; 4 were carrying shot guns, and 3 had air guns, two of which were pistols.  (2)

Ranged against armed offenders are the Armed Offenders’ Squad (AOS) and the Special Tactics Group, (STG) plus other officers who can access a range of ballistic weapons and Tasers from lock boxes in patrol cars.  As of July 2014, 5700 district staff have received or are to receive training in the M4 rifle, Glock Pistol and Taser as Level One responders and the remainder, as Level Two responders, are or will be trained in the use of the Glock pistol.  (3)

The AOS comprises officers who serve on a part-time basis and who are paid an additional allowance for those duties.  It was formed in the mid 1960s in response to the deaths of 4 police officers in two separate shootings.  Since the 1980s it has grown to around 320 officers in 17 squads.  They are issued with a Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol which carries 17 rounds of ammunition, Bushmaster carbine with multiple accessories, pump action shotgun, grenade launcher, CS gas, sniper rifle, ballistic and tactical vests, shields, holsters and have a host of vehicular, communication, surveillance and aviation services available to them.

When kitted out, the AOS and the full-time Special Tactics Group are indistinguishable from any other darkly clad, masked, heavily armoured and heavily armed para-military wing of any police force anywhere in the world. 

How much at risk are police officers?

Since 1890, a total of 29 sworn police officers have died on duty as a result of a criminal act - an average of 1 every 4.3 years.   22 died as a result of gunshot wounds. Of the remainder, 1 was struck by a stolen car, 5 were beaten to death, and 1 died from a head injury sustained when he fell while attempting to subdue a mentally ill woman.

Since 1851, 21 members of the Police Service (20 of whom were sworn officers) have died as a result of accidents whilst on duty. (4)

Combining all police deaths from 1890, the rate is 1 death every 2.6 years.

The highest concentration of police deaths as result of a criminal act was in the 30 years between 1940 and 1970 when a total of 12 officers died, 4 of them were shot by one man.  Over the past 25 years there was 1 death every 5 years on average. Three officers died in the 2000s and there have been no police deaths as a result of a criminal act since May 2009 and 1 accidental death of a police employee who died in the collapse of the CTV building.

In 2009, in the 5 areas of employment which accounted for 67% of the workplace fatalities notified to WorkSafe NZ, a total of 54 people died at work: 18 in construction, 10 in agriculture, 12 in arts and recreation, 10 in manufacturing, and 4 in forestry.

In 2010, the death toll for agricultural workers almost doubled while arts and recreation, construction and manufacturing dropped to 7, 6 and 1 respectively but the overall annual total was greater due to the 29 miners who died at Pike River.  

Taking another comparison, there are around 7000 people employed in forestry. Between 2008 and 2014, 32 forestry workers died at work, which is around 1 death for every 218 people employed.

There are around 11,000 people employed in the police service (of whom 8400 are sworn officers). Between 2008 and 2014, 3 sworn officers and 1 other employee of the NZ Police died at work, which is around 1 death for every 2750 people employed.

As measured by deaths on duty, whether caused by a criminal act and/or as a result of accident, policing is not nearly as dangerous an occupation as forestry, or farming, or fishing, or construction – or even arts and recreation.

It must also be acknowledged that workers in other sectors are not exempt from the risk of dying at work as a result of a criminal act both the sort that cost the lives of two WINZ workers in 2014, and the less obvious criminal acts of employers who expose their employees to unnecessary risks.

(I use the term ‘less obvious’ because deaths caused by an unsafe workplace, even when judged to be the fault of the owner or manager and even when multiple deaths occur, are granted a number of dispensations - both judicially and popularly.)

In making these comparisons I am not seeking to diminish the tragedy of police deaths on duty, or to undermine the efforts that are made to reduce them.  However, given the political use to which police deaths at work are often put, it’s necessary to scrutinise the claims that policing is a highly dangerous occupation because of increasing lawlessness and if all police officers carry guns, both they and the public will be better protected.

The fact there have been no police deaths due to a criminal act in the 6+ years since May 2009 may be claimed as evidence of the effectiveness of the deterrence factor of permanently armed police squads and other police officers having limited access to guns.

If this is true, then the current arrangements have been a success, so why are Mr O'Connor and the law and order brigade still calling for the general arming of police officers and increases in police powers and resources?  

Also, why don’t we hear calls for tighter controls on the sort of weapons that are most commonly used by criminals in NZ - i.e. the sorts of rifles, shotguns and replica air guns that can be purchased very easily in sporting goods stores and gun warehouses?

 Who is at most risk of being shot by the police?

On the other side of the ledger are the people who are killed by the police.  In addition to those who are shot, there are deaths in police custody and the greater number of deaths as a result of police pursuits, but I am concerned here only with those who die as a result of being shot.

Of the total of 31 (5) fatal police shootings since 1941, two-thirds have been in the past 25 years.  The 7 people shot by police officers in the first half of this decade exceeds the total for the whole of the preceding decade, and is one short of the worst decade on record – the 1990s.

If this rate continues, NZ is on track for the highest number of deaths by police bullet of any decade in our history.

In light of the arguments put forward for arming all police and increasing their powers and resources, we could expect the list of those who have been fatally shot to be made up mainly of highly dangerous and violent career criminals or terrorists. 

Analysis of the circumstances reveals a far more complex and worrying picture.
  • Twenty (possibly 22) were carrying guns (11 had a rifle, 4 had a shotgun, 3 had an air gun and 2 had an unknown type of gun.  Not all had threatened police or member of the public with the gun and/or discharged their weapon. 
  • Seven were armed with other weapons, only 1 of which (a crossbow) could have harmed anyone from a distance. The other weapons included knives, golf club, softball bat, hammer, axe and an exercise bar.
  • Two (possibly 3) were unarmed, one of whom was an innocent by-stander. (6)
  • Four had killed someone. Of these, 2 were mass murderers and 1 shot his wife (possibly by accident). Police strongly believed the 4th had shot a police officer and that is stated as proven fact although the case never went to trial.
  • Three others had injured someone - 1 stabbed his daughter, 1 stabbed his wife and a police officer, and 1 injured two people with a knife in a home invasion.
  • One was the first woman to be shot by the NZ police. She was a drug addict and had threatened members of the public and the police with an air rifle.
  • One was shot during an armed bank robbery; 1 after refusing to drop an air pistol when stopped after failing to pay for petrol and some small goods; 1 after a burglary/home invasion in which a gun and a vehicle were stolen and two people were injured; and 1 after a petty burglary of a golf club premises.
  • One was a severely disabled man in a wheelchair who was found at inquest to have committed suicide by giving the police no choice but to shoot him after he had shot and injured 2 people. 
  • Six had been diagnosed with a mental illness and several others were exhibiting highly agitated behaviour prior to being shot due to some sort of personal crisis and/or intoxication.
  • Two were shot after damaging property.
  • Four had held people hostage – none of whom were physically harmed.
  • Four of the incidents arose from a combination of domestic and mental health issues.
The ethnic / nationality profile, as far as I have been able to establish it, is: 
  • 13 Maori (of whom 6 have been shot in the past 5 years); 
  • 13 white; 
  • 2 Pacific Islanders (of whom one was an innocent by-stander);
  • 1 Iraqi migrant;
  • 1 Slovakian tourist.
The disproportionate rate of Maori deaths reflects the incarceration rate of Maori. Both should be a matter of urgent concern to the police, to the state and to the public and the fact that they are not is shameful.

Who should police the police?

The issues around the use of lethal force by the police are as complex as they are critically important to us all. When there is an obvious ethnic and socio-economic bias in who gets shot and when a significant number of these people are mentally ill, those issues become even more important.  

Members of the public are not permitted to kill another person unless defending themselves and even then they may face a homicide charge.  We no longer have a death penalty, so the state does not have the right to take life except when it sends its armed forces into action - and even then there are limits on what armed personnel may and may not do. 

The police, as a key part of the coercive apparatus of the state, also have the right to use lethal force and also within strictly defined boundaries. Police officers who use lethal force or cause death in other ways may face homicide charges if their actions were found to be unjustified.

Culpability is determined by the findings of the coroner into cause of death, the findings of the internal police enquiry, which is conducted by officers from another district, and the findings of the IPCA which is supposed to act as a balance to any bias and shortcomings in the police enquiry. 

In all 27 formally concluded cases where there was use of lethal force  - even when the person was a bystander or unarmed, or armed with a weapon that could be only used at close quarters, even when the person had not killed or threatened to kill, or was clearly disturbed – both the internal police and the IPCA enquiries have found the police officers involved were justified in using lethal force.

Even in a case in which the IPCA found the police involved had broken protocols in multiple ways, even where there was evidence that the officer concerned was not in control, and where testimonial and forensic evidence proved he had a misperception of the situation at the time he fired - the IPCA report concluded that the lethal force was justified and the fault lay with the 19 year-old who had pointed a gun at police.

And of course to some degree that is true but we expect some young people – especially young men - to do daft and sometimes dangerous things, just as we expect there will be people who threaten to do things that they are incapable of doing or have no intention of doing. 

We also have the right to expect armed police officers to exercise a far, far higher level of restraint and good judgment than an intoxicated and /or emotionally distressed or mentally ill person is capable of.

Those people who want to see all police officers in NZ routinely carrying guns, should read the IPCA report into the shooting of Adam Morehu who was pepper sprayed, tasered 3 times, shot twice in the back and then, because officers thought he was resisting arrest, was punched and hit on the head four times with torches as he lay dying. This was after a catalogue of police errors that would be comical if the outcome had not been so tragic.

Can we really say that those officers were capable of making rational and humane decisions?  How about an officer who fails to follow procedure in several critical ways and fires off a volley of 14 shots?  Or an officer who fires a number of shots at the torso of a man carrying a hammer or a golf club when he could retreat to his car and wait for back up, or use pepper spray, or shoot to warn or to disable?  

Witnesses to a shooting often vary greatly in their recollections of events because of the effects of adrenaline on their brains. Police officers who are in the grip of an adrenaline rush are also likely to have a partial and distorted recall of events and their responses to those events as they unfolded may also be have been affected. Adrenaline causes bio-chemical changes in the body that can speed up physical reaction times or have the opposite effect, and they can make it hard or even impossible for a person to make a rational analysis of how best to react in a fast moving and volatile situation.

I do not underestimate the dangers and difficulties facing police officers when they confront an armed person. There is the risk to their own lives plus the intense pressure of the knowledge that, if they do not shoot and the person kills someone, they will have to carry the guilt of that, plus face possible disciplinary action and public criticism.  If they do shoot to kill and there was no justification for it, they will have to live with the fact of having ended a life unnecessarily and possibly face criminal charges and/or civil action.

In an ideal world, police officers who have access to a gun and the right to use it would have full control over any personal prejudices that might affect their decision making; they would have a powerful sense of what it means to take a life; they would have the ability to make sound judgments under extreme pressure, which includes having the independence of mind to refuse to obey a bad order; they would only shoot when absolutely unavoidable, and they would always prefer to shoot to disable than to kill.

We have a right to know how well our police match up to this ideal – and my feeling at the moment is that some, perhaps too many of them, don’t. 

  1.  Encyclopedia of NZ.  
  2. At the time of writing this I do not know the sort of gun used by 2 offenders
  3. Library of Congress :
  4. Wikipedia entry. Of the 19 sworn police officers listed as having have died accidentally whilst on duty since 1851: 8 drowned, 2 of whom were trying to save someone; 4 died in aviation accidents; 3 were killed by trains; 2 died in car accidents; 1 fell and hit his head in the police station; 1 died in a snow storm. An officer died in an explosion when fighting a fire as a volunteer firefighter and an employee of the NZ police died in the CTV building collapse.  There are others who died on duty from causes such as heart failure when chasing a criminal and infection, which are not included.
  5. Waata Momo was shot by armed police and airforce personnel in Weedons in 1941. His death is often not included in data on police shootings- and only reference I can find to him is in somewhat sketchy contemporary newspaper reports.
  6. I have not been able to establish if Daniel Houpapa was armed when shot outside a police station in 1976.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The rise of the industry apologists of journalism

The way that food industry lobbyists and PR people deal with critics follows a distinct pattern :
  1. attack them as ideologically motivated and/or hysterical;
  2. reduce complex and nuanced arguments to a simplistic parody and mock them; 
  3. blame the consumer by arguing that the market’s only following what people want, and it’s people’s own fault if they choose to eat/drink the wrong things;
  4. claim the government can’t legislate to force people to make good choices.  (1)

 In an opinion piece in the Dominion Post entitled ‘The rise of the moral crusaders of academia’, (2)  Karl du Fresne claims Otago University is a hotbed of ‘academic busybody-ism’- in which ‘self-righteous finger-waggers ‘and ‘moral crusaders’ wage a ‘constant campaign of shrill hectoring and haranguing’.

These ‘New Puritans’ exhibit an 'unshakeable moral sanctimony’ and, in making claims such as  'people who have bad eating habits are the victims of heartless, manipulative capitalists', theyre pushing the 'prevailing ideology' that people ‘are not responsible for their own choices and cannot be trusted to make their own decisions’. 

In contrast to the academics’ ideological viewpoint, Du Fresne claims 'we all know that most New Zealanders are sensible enough not to binge on things that they know are bad for them if indulged in to excess'.  

Clearly not everyone knows that or du Fresne wouldn't have a theme for his article, but more importantly, his assertion ignores the facts that a large number of Kiwis binge drink and that, as a nation, we have an extremely high incidence of dietary related conditions such as bowel cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.  There’s also the relatively recent phenomenon of widespread weight gain that has resulted in over 2 million Kiwis being overweight and almost 1 million being classified as 'clinically obese'.

 Dr Lisa Te Morenga,of Otago's Department of Human Nutrition, is singled out by du Fresne for special derision for her claim that it’s harder to make good choices about your health when you are poor.  For Maori health to improve, she says, Maori socio-economic disadvantage needs to be addressed.  People who have been poor and/or who have worked among poor people, will know this to be true – and anyone with intellect and integrity will know that the issues are complex.

Not so Karl du Fresne who dismisses it as ‘nonsense'. He claims ‘it recycles the tired old mantra that people are trapped into eating unhealthy food because it's cheap when plenty of nutritious food"  (he cites 3 forms of carbohydrate -potatoes, pasta and rice)  "is much cheaper than the Big Macs and KFC that a lot of people eat".

Actually no, it's not and Dr Te Morenga’s academic arguments cannot be reduced to ‘a tired old mantra’ unless the reducer has his own ideological agenda.

Stating the obvious, you cannot make a balanced and tasty meal out of potatoes, rice and pasta on their own.  You do not need to be a highly qualified nutritionist like Dr Te Morenga to know that the carbohydrate rich foods du Fresne lists have to be balanced with protein, good fats and vegetables to achieve a healthy diet, and that these elements add considerably to the cost of a meal.   

There's also the fact that whole grain and good quality carbohydrates are much more expensive than highly processed and refined – nutritionally depleted - alternatives.  

If your food budget covers only the bare and the cheapest essentials, building up and maintaining a store of good quality raw ingredients and seasonings can be nigh on impossible.  I invite Karl du Fresne and any other members of the affluensia who want to stand in judgment of the eating habits of the poor, to calculate the cost of the raw ingredients, spices, herbs, oils, vinegars, sauces etc that they have stored in their kitchen.

Damning poor people for not having the skills, the time, the energy to cook tasty, wholesome food – with a paucity of ingredients, in what is often a poorly equipped kitchen and with a very limited energy budget - is bordering on the cruel.

Poverty affects and conditions people's responses to such things as healthy eating in ways that are neither simple nor mechanical. Smug, simplistic and sarcastic articles taking cheap shots at principled academics do nothing to advance the debate - in fact all they do is give succour to an industry that is busy making the harm done by tobacco companies pale into insignificance.

Having lambasted Otago University’s 'busy-bodies' for thinking that the state  ‘should determine how we live’ –  du Fresne says 'if some Maori don't know how to cook healthy food, then let's address that.  If people are miraculously still unaware that fatty food causes obesity, heart disease and diabetes perhaps we need to find a new way of reaching them through education campaigns.’ (my emphasis)

These sentences are so heavily laden with sarcasm they almost fall off the page and they suggest he believes most people are very well aware of the health issues and that they choose to ignore them, i.e. the problem lies in with stupid, lazy, ill-informed people who take the easy options and allow themselves to be unduly influenced by industry advertising.

The concession to an education campaign is pure cynicism as it’s obvious that a government funded education programme could never match the enormous PR, lobbying and advertising budgets of the food industry.  And - given du Fresne’s criticism of academics - where does he think the educators will come from, the food industry itself?

But, as he’s called for some education, let’s start with him.

NZ has had historically high levels of bowel cancer and heart disease – what’s new is the epidemic of obesity and of what used to be called adult-onset diabetes which is now appearing so regularly in children it's been renamed Type-2 diabetes.

Fatty food per se doesn’t cause obesity and diabetes  - the issue is way more complex than that. If it was just a matter of fatty food or even of high consumption of cane sugar, NZ would have always had very high rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

A diet that’s high in saturated fats and low in dietary fibre is a factor in high rates of bowel cancer and heart disease but the current epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes throughout the developed world dates from the 1980s and is largely due to changes in the way food is produced and marketed - and to intersections between the interests and operations of the powerful petro-chemical, automobile, pharmaceutical, food, tobacco and alcohol industries.

n relation to food, a lot of evidence points to the ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener and preservative in a vast range of cheaper processed foods and drinks.  The effects of this additive on the individual is very likely influenced by genetic predispositions, exposure to other toxins in food and the environment and with generally increased levels of stress and decreased levels of hard physical exercise.

Fructose is metabolised in the liver and we do not metabolise it efficiently and large amounts of it result in visceral fat deposits, the presence of which affects the endocrine system.  HFCS was not present in large amounts in peoples' diets until the 1970s and its use, and the globalisation and growth of the fast food industry (in which I include supermarkets), is coincidental with a general increase in weight and the particular increase in rates of clinical and morbid obesity.

Basically, too much fructose compromises people’s bio-chemistry and a lot of bad eating habits are being driven by that impaired bio-chemistry.  

Along with educating people, there is a pressing need to regulate the food producers – to control an industry which:
  • is not obliged to reveal all the ingredients in the processed foods it sells or the potential health effects;
  • laces low quality, nutritionally empty food and drinks with a substance that is known to wreak havoc on our bio-chemistry; 
  • makes hyper-processed, nutritionally empty food staples cheaper than whole foods, and sugar-rich drinks cheaper than healthy alternatives; 
  • employs highly paid and morally vacant PR people to polish its image and tarnish that of its critics, and pays unscrupulous lobbyists to influence both government and public opinion.

Karl du Fresne ends his opinion piece with : “ I'm no apologist for the fast food industry. … But no-one is forced to eat burgers or deep-fried chicken, any more than they are forced to smoke.”

And he has the gall to accuse academic critics of the food industry of employing ‘lazy and simplistic’ arguments.

2)   Dominion Post August 21st