Vitale Lafaele spent nearly 30 years in the police force before he was forced to retire, at 53, when he was the area commander of Counties Manukau South, the first Sāmoan in that role. Joining the police force after a stint in the SAS, he found very different attitudes there to Māori and Pacific people, compared to the army.
In this edited excerpt from his memoir, A Canoe Before the Wind, Vitale talks about the work he did to undo the bias and break down the barriers for Pacific in the police.
In late 1999, Lou Alofa, a sergeant in community affairs in West Auckland, called me.
“Brother, have you heard of this Closing the Gaps?” he asked.
I said: “What’s that?”
“It’s a big initiative from the Labour government to deal with inequalities for Maōri and Pacific people.”
“That sounds interesting.”
The following year, the Labour government made their Closing the Gaps programme a key policy initiative. The goal of the programme was to reduce social and economic inequalities between Pālagi, Maōri and Pasifika communities.
It was all about building diversity and inclusiveness. All government departments, police included, had to report on what they were doing to close the socioeconomic gaps and address the inequality experienced by Maōri and Pacific Island people. As part of that, the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs asked every government department and organisation to do a stocktake of what they were doing to close the gaps for Pasifika people.
When New Zealand Police were asked to address what they were doing to reduce offending and victimisation of Pacific people, they thought about Auckland, home to the world’s largest concentration of Pacific Islanders. Superintendent Howard Broad was the district commander in Auckland. As I was the most senior Pasifika officer in the district, Howard asked me to try to work out what Closing the Gaps looked like for the police, and then to research and write the organisation’s first milestone document outlining how we could be more responsive to the Pacific community.
Although I already had a fair bit on my plate — as the Officer in Charge at Avondale, patrol group commander and workplace investigator — I said yes. I had a lot of thoughts.
When I was in the SAS, there was only a couple of other Sāmoan people in the SAS, but there were a lot of Fijians and a lot of Maōri — maybe even up to 60 per cent were Pasifika and Maōri. True to the regiment’s tenet of “brook no sense of class”, it was a brotherhood and we were all just equal. Whether you were Pālagi, Maōri or Pasifika, whether you were a man or a woman, you’d be treated the same.
When I went there, I was just Lafaele, and I was treated as an equal to a Smith or a Jones or a Tipene. I was just treated as a person. I don’t remember even talking about race when I was in the SAS. I certainly didn’t have to deal with racism there.
But, boy, I got it back in spades when I went into the police.
Straight from the SAS, I went to hearing things like: “Control, we’re going 3T with a bunch of golliwogs . . . but VJ, you’re all right.” (3T was when we stopped a car.) I’d hear officers talking about how all Maōri and Pacific Islanders just drank and got on the benefit. I lost count of the times I heard: “Oh, not you, VJ. You’re okay, you’re one of us,” after someone had used really racist terms to talk about Pacific people.
Some of what drove me to work on the Closing the Gaps initiative was that it was a way for me to say: “You know what? We’re not different. We’re not ‘coconuts’ or any of the other derogatory terms you use to talk about offenders.”
I knew that it wasn’t that way in the SAS, so I didn’t see why the police shouldn’t be the same. It also caused me to pause and reflect on the Dawn Raids, which had served as a reminder of — and renewed the hurt from — the dark days of New Zealand colonial rule. However, when I think about them, they help me see how far we’ve come as a nation when it comes to embracing diversity.
This opportunity was a way to reconcile what I experienced first-hand during the 1970s and the Dawn Raids, which had impacted so negatively on Pacific communities.
Closing the Gaps enabled the reconciliation and worked in partnership with Pacific communities to determine what is best for Pacific people. It also recognised the progression of Pacific people from the 1970s, from predominately factory workers to politicians, lawyers, doctors and academics.
In my view, it was a celebration of how far we’d come as Pacific peoples and the government’s acknowledgement and pledge to right the wrong of inequality and the lack of diversity and inclusiveness from the past, for future generations. I had to be part of the evolution of Pacific peoples, and acknowledge and pay homage to our forefathers, whose pain and suffering paved the way for the progressive prosperity and influence of our people in Aotearoa.
I called Senior Constable Alf Filipaina, who is now an Auckland City councillor, but back then was a constable at Manukau doing a lot of work with Pacific people. Between Alf, Lou Alofa and me, we had Auckland Central, West Auckland and Counties Manukau covered.
“Right, how are we going to do this?” That’s how it began.
Alf, Lou and I had our first meeting in my office at Avondale back in 2000. That’s where the responsiveness strategy began, and we had no idea what was in front of us as it was a bold new initiative.
I wanted there to be Sāmoan and other Pasifika people at the top table. It felt like we were just in the police to come along, play the guitar, say grace before the meal and do youth-aid work, while strategies that really affected our communities were all being devised by people who didn’t understand us. I wanted to change that approach.
I don’t think those expectations that Pacific officers would go into youth-aid and community work necessarily come from a place of racism. It was just that Pacific people were seen to be good at those things. No one expected us to go into the CIB or Armed Offenders Squad, because that was real, mainstream, hard policing, and we were better suited to doing what the organisation thought we were good at.
While I was working on the Pacific responsiveness strategy, Howard Broad phoned me and asked if I had a minute to chat about something else. Given he was the district commander, I made sure I had time.
He asked if I knew about a case in which three young girls had been wrongfully convicted of aggravated robbery. I told him I did. The case was a high-profile one so it would have been odd if I hadn’t known about it. In 2000, Tania Vini (15), Lucy Akatere (16), and McCushla Fuataha (15), had been found guilty of aggravated robbery and sentenced to imprisonment. Following a lot of hard work by Tania’s father, Vini Kava, all three of them were freed after spending seven months in jail, after two witnesses retracted their statements and a Court of Appeal ruling said they’d been wrongly convicted.
When the girls were released from prison, Howard, as district commander; Gavin Jones, the head of Auckland Central CIB (the team who’d arrested the girls); a member of the Crown solicitor’s office; and a small group of other officials representing the Crown and police wanted to deliver an official apology to the girls.
Keenly aware that there would be cultural issues around the apology, Howard asked me if I would go and visit the girls’ families to talk to them about what the police were intending to do in terms of apologising.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
He said: “VJ, just go in there and do your thing. You’ll know what to do.”
“Okay, give me a couple of days.”
When I turned up in uniform, the families were a bit suspicious about why I was there. I got the heat from them, but I was expecting that, given what they’d all been through. I was able to go to them with a Pasifika approach and in a way that made them comfortable. As a result, they invited me in and listened to what I had to say. Having heard me out, they said they were happy to receive the group and to hear what they had to say.
On the day, before we all went into the house, I explained to everyone that they should take their shoes off, which they did. I then told them that I would lead them into the house and that I would speak first. Then if Howard wanted to speak, he was welcome to. That’s exactly what happened.
After I led the group in, I spoke and then sat to one side. The police and Crown Solicitor’s representatives were welcomed by the families and then made their apologies. The district commander and head of the CIB gave their apology. In some ways, I was acting as a Pacific liaison officer before such a thing even existed.
(In 2006, the girls were each awarded compensation by the government.)
After I completed the milestone document, which New Zealand Police provided to the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs in 2001, I began work on the first Pacific responsiveness strategy.
In 2001, Pacific staff made up 3.7 per cent of police, and I think nearly all of them contributed to the strategy document in some way.
My big push in the police was to grow the visibility of Pasifika within the organisation through leadership. I wanted our leadership team to include both commissioned and non-commissioned officers. The only way we were going to really be influential was through having strong leadership and having people who were at the decision-making table in our group.
We met bi-monthly in the police bar. Howard Broad used to give me $50 to cover the sausage rolls. I knew $50 wouldn’t feed a group of Pacific staff. My wife Annette kindly handed over our personal credit card.
People used to walk past and see our little group sitting there talking and laughing and I could sense that they were thinking: “What the hell are they doing? Go do some work, will you!” I said to the team: “The day they walk past and see inspectors and people of rank in this group, that will change.”
If young Pacific people — or people from any other minority community — see people who look like them in uniform, they’re less likely to think: “I can’t do that because I’m not good enough,” or “Those jobs there are for others, not us.”
Instead, they can see that there’s a path that they can walk to get into the organisation and then to excel within it.
The number of Pacific officers in the police grew from 3.7 per cent in 2001 to 4.9 per cent in 2018, so clearly there’s still a long way to go.
Diversity is being asked to the party. Inclusiveness is being asked to dance. We got the diversity part happening, but the inclusiveness part still needs a lot of work. It’s not just the police. So many organisations have diversity, but the inclusiveness is missing.
As long as our people aren’t at the decision-making table, there will always be a group of non-Māori, non-Pacific, non-Asian people making strategies for those communities rather than with them.
I’d love to challenge officers to aspire to being at that decision-making table and to fight against being pigeon-holed by the organisation. I’m living proof that you can make your way through the ranks and you can do things that might not be expected of you — and that you might not expect of yourself.
Extracted with permission from A Canoe Before the Wind by Vitale Lafaele. $39.99. Published by HarperCollins NZ.
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