Wednesday, 21 October 2015

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.

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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.

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