Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Police vs democracy

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Dr Bryce Edwards writes: Accusations that the New Zealand Police are censoring and suppressing critical enquiry is troubling for democracy and freedom.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Accusations that the New Zealand Police are censoring and suppressing critical enquiry is troubling for democracy and freedom. 

When some parts of the establishment can’t cope with criticism, they hit back and find ways to protect themselves from public scrutiny. That’s the logical conclusion following revelations from sociologist Jarrod Gilbert about Police attempts to prevent him from accessing information. Gilbert tells his story in yesterday’s Herald column, The police have deemed me unfit to undertake crime research because I know criminals

In this must-read column, Gilbert details how he has “been banned from accessing basic and uncontroversial police data”. When he sought some sort of explanation via a request for the Police’s file on him, in reply he “got pages of black ink. Everything has been redacted: censored.” The column also reveals details of “the lengths police are going to to control research”, including a threat by the Police to “blacklist” researchers who do not comply.  

There’s since been a flurry of news media reports on the issue, starting with David Fisher’s Academics in battle with police. This reports other criticisms of the Police contracts for researchers, which are said to amount to “an attack on academic freedom and an affront to the Education Act’s legal obligation on academic institutions to be a ‘critic and conscience of society’.”

See also David Fisher’s important follow up reports: Revealed: The police contracts ‘shutting down debate’ and Police withholding information to avoid embarrassing govt, says O’Connor

The response has been strong, especially in political circles. On Twitter, Government Minister Peter Dunne (‏@PeterDunneMP) has sided with Gilbert, tweeting sarcastically to him, “I assume Police will now stop providing information to Courts, Judges, Prisons probation officers etc on same basis?”. Labour’s Chris Hipkins (‏@chrishipkins) has declared: “Govt agencies have no right to question how official information will be used by requesters. It’s undemocratic”, which gained a response from Trevor Mallard (‏@TrevorMallard) that it was “about time the State Services Commissioner pretended he had a backbone”. 

Various academics have tweeted in solidarity. The University of Auckland’s Luke Goode (‏@LukeGoode) stated: “This is appalling censorship, bullying & abuse of power. Universities should jointly and vigorously oppose this.” And media figures have also sounded alarmed. Former editor-in-chief of the Herald, Tim Murphy ‏(@tmurphyNZ) tweeted to Gilbert: “Disgraceful censorship and control freakery…….good to go public”. For more examples, see my blog post, Top tweets about NZ Police suppression of academic research

But not everyone has sided with Gilbert. On Facebook, former politician and columnist Michael Laws declared: “Let’s be clear here: Jarrod Gilbert is a gang associate, a gang apologist & a gang enabler. He always has been, and he uses the cloak of academia to mask his true sensibilities. Good on the Police, I say.”

Critiques of the Police not appreciated

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Gilbert has been banned due to his critical approach to both the Police and the establishment in general. Gilbert said something similar on RNZ yesterday: “what concerns police is sometimes I’m critical of them, and they may not like the research that I engage in” – see RNZ’s: Police block gang expert’s data access. You can also listen to his six-minute interview with Guyon Espiner on Morning Report: Academic questions police restrictions on data. He argues that the Police clampdown has “got very chilling implications for free speech.”

This is elaborated upon by blogger No Right Turn: “The real problem is that the Police don’t like what Jarrod Gilbert has been saying about them or crime policy – so they’re trying to destroy his career as revenge.  So far, so normal: our police are chronic abusers of power and obsessed with maintaining their own public image. They’ve shown a willingness to manipulate and fabricate evidence in criminal cases (and continue to endorse those who do so); of course they’ll do so to protect themselves from critics” – see: Police, censorship, and policy

Gilbert is the author of the landmark Auckland University Press book, Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand. He’s also active as a columnist and blogger, winning the 2015 Canon Media Award for best blogger. And at times he has criticised the National Government on law and order issues – see his June column, Collins’ defence of police offending indefensible and his September column, Govt stats on gangs ‘wildly inaccurate’

Of course he’s not the only academic to receive an interesting Police response to his research activity. Earlier this year, the Herald on Sunday published a feature article I wrote, which was critical of the Police and questioned the health of the organisation – see: NZ police are failing the public.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush responded with: In defence of New Zealand’s defenders. Interestingly, Jarrod Gilbert blogged in response to the exchange, with both bouquets and brickbats for the Police (as well as some of both for myself) – see: The pen is mightier than the baton. In this post Gilbert also outlines his own orientation towards the police. 

See also, three other columns I have written this year about the police: Can we trust the police?The politics of justice and Libertarians against dirty politics

Political response

Much condemnation has come from media and political circles. Media specialist Russell Brown has been forthright in rallying a response to the situation: “This is scary and unacceptable and must be resisted as forcefully as possible. I might be wrong, but I don’t anticipate Jarrod’s employers at the University of Canterbury will die in a ditch over this. So it therefore falls to the rest of us to declare that what the police are doing to Jarrod and the control they seek to impose on others like him is incompatible with democracy.  I invite my fellow journalists, academics and other members of the public to join me in saying so in the discussion for this blog post. This cannot stand” – see: The Police Ten 7 State

And it’s not just the left expressing alarm at Gilbert’s revelations – David Farrar has labeled the Police processes “outrageous” and “ludicrous” – see: Police censorship. See also Eric Crampton’s Police muzzles?

In Parliament, the opposition parties have spoken out strongly, especially the Greens’ David Clendon – see Newswire’s Opposition ‘furious’ over police research contracts

This article reports that “Police Minister Michael Woodhouse isn’t commenting, saying it’s an operational matter.” Others argue, however, that the issue is one of policy. For example, former police investigator Tim McKinnel ‏(@timmckinnel) has tweeted in response: “Has @WoodhouseMP ever said anything substantive about NZ Police #everythingisoperational”. And Graeme Edgeler (‏@GraemeEdgeler) has suggested: “The next time a minister declines to answer a question in the House because it’s an operational matter, the questioner should put a motion on the order paper requiring the Chief Executive (or Police Commissioner etc.) to attend the House to answer questions.”

Reforming Police processes

Labour and the Greens are calling for the Government to scrap the Police contracts forced onto researchers – see Katie Kenny’s Call for police to scrap ‘censoring’ contracts after researcher Dr Jarrod Gilbert banned

Police Minister Michael Woodhouse might have no choice, as it appears the Police are breaking the law with the way they are handling information requests. According to law professor Andrew Geddis, based on the information at hand, Police behaviour “is inconsistent with the Police’s legal obligations under the Official Information Act, and thus unlawful” – see: My 2 cents on the Jarrod Gilbert affair…. Geddis says that Police “seem to be treating that information as ‘theirs’ to do with as they want and only sharing it on their terms. Which is not what the law says!”

Today’s Herald editorial makes a similar point, saying the Police shouldn’t be discriminating over who receives its information: “The police have no right to make that judgment. They are a public body obliged to be open to scrutiny” – see: Data attitude casts bad light on Govt policy

David Farrar agrees with calls to change the way Police deal with information requests: “I would go further. I think all government data, by default, should be publicly available in machine readable format. Obviously personal details should not be included, but I’d love to see the criminal sector databases on convictions, sentencing, rehabilitation etc publicly available so NGOs, researchers and even companies can analyse the data and look for trends, correlations, possible causative factors etc” – see: Police censorship

Government PR versus democracy

But is the problem bigger than just the Police? That’s the argument made by Danyl Mclauchlan: “It’s all very sinister on its own but it’s related to a deeper problem in the public service that got bad under Clark and is now so much worse under Key, and that is the transformation of the public service into a giant public relations machine for the government of the day. All sectors of the public service now have large communications departments and their primary role is to ‘manage risk’ for the Minister, Director/CEO and the rest of the organisation, in that order” – see: Research as propaganda

This argument is backed up today, curiously, by Police Association president Greg O’Connor, who says that officers and bosses are acting like other public servants in government departments who are attempting to avoid embarrassing the government – see David Fisher’s Police withholding information to avoid embarrassing govt, says O’Connor. O’Connor says: “Commissioners are answerable to ministers as any other CEO in the public sector. The stuff that is going to embarrass government is going to be hidden in official documents or statistics.”  

Similarly, Tertiary Education Union president Sandra Grey has said “the withholding of information by government departments was widespread and created a climate of silence” – see Laura Bootham’s Academic freedom under threat – TEU. Grey also says “It is getting really concerning that we’re seeing a closing down of really legitimate public debate.”

Grey is also reported as believing that “the conditions, which were attached to academics accessing publicly-owned data, were being created because of the potential for political discomfort” – see David Fisher’s Revealed: The police contracts ‘shutting down debate’

Today’s Herald editorial, Data attitude casts bad light on Govt policy, also warns about this trend: “These disturbing contracts seem symptomatic of an unfortunate attitude that has permeated the public service under this Government. Its ‘no surprises’ principle seeks to control the release of any information which might be awkward to explain.” The Herald complains that the Official Information Act “has seemingly become subservient to a culture of information control, or ‘spin’ in the vernacular. When the culture has permeated even the police, it is time to take stock.”

For other news on problems with the Official Information Act, see Vernon Small’s Public watchdogs need to bare their teeth over misuse of OIA, taxpayer events, and my recent column, New Zealand’s closed government

Stories about the Police

The Police are currently trying to improve their PR by restructuring their public affairs and communications divisions – see Anna Leask’s Overhaul of police PR and communications divisions

But they are facing a difficult task in light of some searching investigative reporting by Heather du Plessis-Allan on TV3 Story. The latest embarrassing item is last night’s six-minute story, Are police doing enough to return your stolen gear?

But it’s du Plessis-Allan’s ongoing investigation into gun purchasing laws that could be more damaging. See her original five-minute story from last month, Loophole in gun laws needs to close, followed up with the two-minute story, Police move to shut down flaw in gun-buying system, and then four-minute story, Police warned about gun risk but did nothing. du Plessis-Allan has also written about this issue in her column, In the gun with mum after rifle stunt

Policing the police

How well is the Independent Police Conduct Authority doing in its watchdog role? Its annual report has recently been released – which you can download here

According to Henry Cooke’s news report, the authority has been struggling to complete its investigations on time, largely due to a 15 per cent increase in the complaints and referrals it has received – see: IPCA falls far short of its goal. And RNZ reports that budgetary constraints are causing some to question whether human rights are being hampered as a result – see: Police conduct authority funding tight

Finally, what are the hard questions being asked about the issue by satirists? Dr Frank Shizenhausen asks: “Why wasn’t Dr Gilbert simply arrested in the middle of the night and dragged to a secret detention centre? I’m sure that with the right amount of handling he would have confessed to any number of crimes. Like the Crewe murders, for example” – see Scott Yorke’s Right Thinking: Unacceptable police behaviour.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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