Treatment of Māori by police more than just unconscious bias in the force, psychologist says

Looking at statistics of how Māori are treated by police, psychologist Jacqui Maguire says she finds it hard to believe there is only "unconscious bias" in the force.

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Jacqui Maguire explains the difference in unconscious bias and systemic racism. Source: Breakfast

Her comments come after Police Minister Stuart Nash previously claimed there was no systemic racism in the New Zealand Police, but that there were signs of "unconscious bias".

On TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning, Ms Maguire explained the difference between unconscious bias and systemic racism.

"Unconscious bias describes a phenomenon that we all have internalised belief systems or schemas that we're unaware of that influence our actions and our behaviours, and that can be based on race, it can be based on gender, it can be based on weight, religion - there's a whole raft of things we have unconscious bias on," she said.

"But what we know is that people's behaviour that is therefore unintentional can still have very large ramifications on a group of people that normally are disadvantaged compared to other groups, so whilst I might be unaware of how I'm acting based on these unconscious belief systems, it causes quite significant vindication to another group."

An example of an unconscious bias, she said, is the idea that people of colour are more hostile than those who are pākehā or white.

"You can then see how if a whole police force, or people in the police, hold that internal view without knowing it, that can then interfere in how they respond to [a person of colour with] an ambiguous object in their hand."

However, Ms Maguire said that differs from systemic racism.

"Systemic racism is almost the water we swim in. It's the fabric woven into our society and it shows that racism is insidious and woven into every part of life, through our laws, through our policies, through the way that we govern. It's not formed by chance. Systemic racism is formed on historical injustice.

"Systemic racism is like the soil we're all growing in. So it doesn't matter how much potentially you challenge people's unconscious biases, if this system doesn't shift then a group of people are going to continue to be disadvantaged, which will impact us all because we are then not harnessing and utilising all the amazing talent and resource we have in our people."

So Breakfast host Hayley Holt asked if Ms Maguire believed the Police Minister's statement that there is no systemic racism in New Zealand's police.

"When you look at the numbers, Hayley, and you go: Māori are six times more likely to be handcuffed, they're 11 times more likely to be pepper sprayed, they're nine times more likely to have dogs set upon them, two thirds of fatal shootings in the last decade have been Māori," Ms Maguire said.

"I would find it hard to believe that's only unconscious bias. I would think that that is a signal that absolutely there are systems in play that are supporting a disadvantage between Māori and the rest of us."

However, when asked how to fix it, Ms Maguire said there was no form of training at the moment that's beneficial.

In fact, some research on organisations looking to understand diversity and unconscious bias actually shows it can be more damaging than useful, she added.

"I suppose when we look at this, yes we can get people to look at their thought processes, we can get people to get uncomfortable and challenge some of their beliefs and decisions that we're making. We can, as individuals, take responsibility for learning about our history here in New Zealand and taking that upon ourselves rather than asking Māori to be responsible for us in terms of educating us.

"But really, this isn't going to change unless we as a society shift and refocus and work together to really change the water we're swimming in."