Kim Workman

Kim Workman is leading an investigation into police bias: “We realised early on that research of this kind doesn’t usually succeed.” (Photo supplied)

Tā Kim Workman has spent 30 years advocating for criminal justice reform. At 82, he’s now leading the largest ever investigation in this country into police bias. The independent research began in March last year.

He tells Connie Buchanan why he thinks the project will create real change.


We realised very early on that research of this kind doesn’t usually succeed. Overseas, in the US and the UK, we’ve seen the fragility.

It starts off with the police saying: “How dare you call us racist? How dare you insinuate that we are racist individuals?”

The researchers who then look into it generally come up with one of two conclusions.

The first is that everyone in the police is racist, which tends to hack the police off, and then they won’t cooperate with any real change.

And then the other outcome is to say that there’s no racism at all in the police. That’s been the situation in the UK. They’ve been stuck arguing about the definition and meaning of institutional racism for 22 years.

We’ve turned it around and said that what we’re trying to do is create fair and equitable policing. Nobody can argue with that.

If that means we’re going to uncover examples of bias or racism along the way, then so be it. If we want to have fair and equitable policing, then we’ll have to front up and address the things that we might find.

The Police Association and the Police Officers Guild support this approach. And the Police Commissioner has demonstrated a great deal of courage in taking it up.

Still, when we asked some of our independent panel and research team to come on board, there was a bit of reluctance. Some of them said: “Oh, not another government report that’s not going to go anywhere or achieve anything.”

But when I shared the Commissioner’s mandate with them, they got excited.

Because this isn’t the usual government advisory group where it’s chaired by the government agency, and they have Māori advisors that they expect to just sit there and nod their heads at the right time.

We’re not going to do that. We have an incredibly powerful group of Māori and Pacific expertise working to a kaupapa Māori methodology.

We have 13 academic and community leaders on the panel, including the likes of Professor Khylee Quince, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Paul Spoonley, Anne Waapu, Efeso Collins, Lady Tureiti Moxon, and Rahui Papa. We have Distinguished Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith chairing our ethics committee, along with Drs Poia Rewi, Patrick Thomsen and Moana Waitoki.

There’s a collective excitement about the project among these leaders about being able to have a deep dig into what sort of bias is happening and how we can reduce it.

When the Commissioner announced the project, we had media reporting that we were looking for unconscious bias and individual racism. That isn’t it at all.

We’re looking at what the evidence shows about systemic bias, which is about the policies of the police, the procedures, the practices, the legislation. It’s about the things that the police culture might accept as being the norm while not appreciating that those normal practices bring about disproportionate and inequitable outcomes.

We’re looking at things like who police stop and talk to, when and how they use force, and the decisions about the charges that are made.

Over the last 18 months, we’ve been engaging with a group of 27 frontline police officers, and from the first meeting we had some of them started to identify issues of bias themselves.

They’ve offered up examples from their own experiences of different forms of bias in police practice. Often, systemic bias that reflects badly on the police is the result of decisions made elsewhere within the criminal justice system.

For example, if a person wanted on warrant makes a voluntary appearance at the Christchurch District Court, the judiciary has directed that they must be arrested by the police and held in custody until they are called to appear, rather than sitting at the rear of the court waiting their turn. The majority of the people who are needlessly placed in custody are Māori. They don’t understand that they’re being arrested at the direction of the court, and they think that it’s the police taking every chance they can to make their lives miserable. It reinforces any negative view of the police and lowers their level of trust.

Because, where the hell is the trust in that? Those people have honoured their bail, turned up, and they get re-arrested. Why would you want to turn up the second time? Those are the sorts of practices that lead to allegations of police bias.

This whole research programme is built on difficult conversations with the police themselves. That’s why it’s different from what’s happened in the past.

We’ve also agreed with police that we shouldn’t wait until the end of the research before we do anything. I’ve been in justice advocacy for 30 years and I’ve seen dozens of reports that come from criminal justice sources that identify disproportionate outcomes for Māori and Pacific people. And the reports end up sitting on someone’s shelf, and nothing happens.

If we find examples that clearly require a shift in policy or procedures and protocols, then we’ve said we’ll sort it out now. We have the ability to have an ongoing discussion with the police and get them to change some of their practices. So what we’re really doing is continual improvement which will lead to transformation.

That doesn’t mean hunting out unconscious bias or individual racists and dismissing people from the police force.

Yes, unconscious bias is an accepted phenomenon. But we also know that unconscious bias training, where people are taught about it and given strategies to avoid it, doesn’t work. There’s no evidence to show that it makes any difference.

People still use the term “unconscious bias” as an excuse. They say: “I didn’t realise I was doing it — therefore, I can’t be blamed.” There are also racist individuals across the entire country in every government agency.

What we want is for the police, not individuals, to take responsibility, so that there’s systemic shifts and systemic change.

We’re also talking to members of our communities and hearing their stories, their history, and the way they see themselves as being treated by police. We have the right people in place to make sure we’re looking after the information they give us. We’re not there to take it away and use it for our own purposes. We’re there to make a difference to their lives.

I’m optimistic. I think this is the first time a government agency has had the guts to take a close look at itself in this way. I haven’t witnessed any opposition from the deputy commissioners or from the commissioned officers or from the staff themselves.

They do a lot of challenging of us, but in a good way — and we need to have that. We’re on the cusp of something important where the right energy exists.

What I’m also seeing are senior officers who are already very imaginative and creative in the way they want to work with communities and reduce crime.

We see it in the way they’re working with Ngāti Kahungunu, for example, to help reintegrate people into the community once they get out of prison. We see it in the Bay of Plenty and other places where police are working with gangs and former gang members and the incidence of family violence is going down.

We’re starting to see some really exciting things happen. If we’re brave enough to say we can do this stuff together, then I think we can make the difference.

If you wanted to, you could spend your life dissing everything that’s happened. Just crapping on it. Or you can actually get stuck in and do something about it. And all of the people who are involved in this want to get on and make the difference.


Dr Kim Workman (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitaane) spent nearly four decades in the public sector, including within the police, Corrections, the Office of the Ombudsman, State Services Commission, Department of Māori Affairs, and Ministry of Health. He was Director of Prison Fellowship from 2000 until 2008, and Families Commissioner from 2008 to 2011.

In 2005, Kim was joint recipient of the International Prize for Restorative Justice, and in 2007, he was made a Companion of the Queens Service Order. He was named 2018 Metlifecare Senior New Zealander of the Year

As told to Connie Buchanan, made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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