Friday, July 31, 2015

On arming the police

Last year when people were questioning whether police forces in the United States have become too militarized, the president of New Zealand’s police association (NZPA)  called for our police to be “fully armed”. He claimed that incidents that might require a police having to use a fire arm are not “isolated” incidents.

At the time I found myself with questions. Questions that I have not seen any answers to. Either crime is dropping or this stuff is not isolated. They can’t both be true. And what does it mean to be fully armed? Just a gun? Or do we want to head towards US-style militarized police?
Someone went on a “psychotic episode” according the president – and Mr. O’Conor’s response was that police need to have guns. Wouldn’t the cost of arming our police officers be better spent in mental healthcare services? When tasers were brought up, he said “Tasers are never an option against any scenario involving a firearm”. However yesterday, it was announced that tasers can now be carried by those who are trained at all times on-duty. Police Commissioner Mike Bush thinks that the feedback from frontline staff merits this change, which will lead to more effective “staff and public safety”.

Last year O’Conor said that apparently our “police officers are already in danger” and it’s only a matter of time when something worse will happen. So basically his advice was we should transition from a routinely unarmed police force to an armed one because of something that might happen. I wouldn’t call that effective or evidence based policy-making.

At the time Mr. O’ Conor also claimed that New Zealand police officers are shot at greater numbers proportionally compared to Australia. Well that’s not good. But I’d like to see the numbers. What is he basing that on? I don’t recall anyone asking him what the actual number is. Then the Police Commissioner said that arming the police would change their relationship with the public beyond repair, and it was incorrect to say that the Police Association was talking on behalf of all police staff. So I did a little bit of a digging (not comprehensive) to see what work has been done on arming of the police. There’s lots of stories on the UK but it’s really hard to find a lot of substantive information.
Ross Hendy at the University of Cambridge is looking into routinely unarmed police officers and their police-citizen interactions in England, New Zealand, and Norway for his PhD. He also wrote an article in the Policing Journal looking at Scandinavian experience of routinely armed and unarmed police in the context of New Zealand’s on-going arming conversation. In his paper he mentions that a survey of the NZPA in 2010 found that 72% wanted to be armed – decreasing to 63% in 2013. Yet news articles have reported that the NZPA unanimously wanted to be armed. Which is it?

Hendy surveyed Scandinavian police officers and Norwegians – who like the Kiwis have their guns in their cars – had interesting perspectives. The whole article was interesting, but here’s what one Norwegian officer said:
“We have, as you may know, the firearms … with us in the cars. It take[s] me less than a minute to take them out and be ready to use them. In my opinion the most sufficient argument is that it gives us time to think instead of getting the sidearm on the hip and just running in to solve a case … As a result of not thinking over the situation, they [are] getting into [a situation where] they will be forced to use their firearm instead of using time to think. It’s not that much time I am talking about, maybe a minute, two minutes, three minutes; maybe we get some assistance as four officers are a better job than two. … It’s important for the mental preparation…”
The article goes on to analyze how the arming is more about the police feeling safe rather than actually being safe. What still remains are many questions as to what we want from our police and what our country needs. Should arming the police be our priority or are other changes within NZ Police more important? Police culture? Their interaction with the public? At present the discussion is about tasers and not guns and this from lawyer Graeme Edgeler is useful: 
The public needs to understand the power that the state can wield via the police. The police need to understand the limitations of that power. All of this has to happen in the context of public safety. Perhaps recent news about US Police’s interaction with the public clouds my judgement but with police brutality constantly in the news, one cannot be too cautious.

Some articles I read for this blog:

A version of this blogpost first appeared on on October 29, 2014

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Reporting poll results under MMP

This topic has been on my mind for quite some time and has been discussed at length on Twitter. Under MMP, is it useful to present National vs. Labour anymore? The electoral landscape of New Zealand is not only multi-party but multi-tiered between the party vote and the electorate vote. The Māori Party, United Future and ACT wield considerable power based on their electorate support that is disproportional to their overall party support. I do not think this is a bad thing per se. If you are a good electorate MP or if you are of some use to the governing coalition, then so be it. This is the way our electoral system is currently set up. However, the problem is that National basically monopolizes 'the right' in party vote and no other party on 'the left' has that capability. 'The left' is far more fragmented in terms of party allegiance. I, for one, think this is a good thing for the left. People who identify with 'the left' have choices and there is also far more robust policy discussions. The Greens and New Zealand First are formidable ‘opposition’ parties and when taken their support into account the wedge between the Government and the Opposition is much smaller.

This morning Radio Live tweeted the following:

This is a factually correct tweet but ultimately useless under MMP. Let’s take last night’s complete poll results for instance –
National: 47%, Labour: 31.1%, Greens: 11.4%, NZ First: 8.4%, Conservatives: 0.7%, Māori: 0.6%, ACT: 0.5%, UF: 0.1%

When comparing National vs Labour, the numbers for the left seems grim indeed. So let’s rearrange them differently:

*The reason I have Conservatives as “irrelevant” is because not only are they not in Parliament, it is unclear whether they would fall under “opposition”. They seem to be ideologically aligned to the right but at the same time seem to run on a platform of “opposing” the government.

The numbers look extremely different and not as grim one might add. Now, many will say that it is not fair to put NZ First with the “opposition” when they a) would not necessarily want to work with the Greens and b) could potentially end up in coalition with National. This is a fair point. However, I deliberately do not call it “the left”. I call it "the opposition" because my assumption is that if folks are choosing New Zealand First, they have a problem with the current government, its policy agenda, and/or its leadership. Even if we take out NZ First from the "opposition", the fight seems to lie in roughly 10% of the electorate rather than the roughly 20% when presented as National vs Labour. 

Next year, we would have had the MMP electoral system for 20 years. There are folks who vote in NZ elections who have never voted under (First Past the Post) FPP, including yours truly. The National vs Labour narrative is wholly useless to us once we take into account strategic voting in Ōhāriu, Epsom and Māori electorates as well split votes in places like Wellington Central. There is no democratic efficacy in this kind of reporting and I believe that our established media should reconsider the way they report poll numbers in the interest of democratic principles. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sunday feature: What is actually going on with Serco?

First there was the “fight club” allegations
Private prison company Serco has admitted it received reports of organised "fight clubs" in its prisons two months ago but will only investigate now, after fight footage was shot and shared online.
Then Labour’s Kelvin Davis brought into light an “initiation ritual” at the Mt Eden prison called “dropping”. Apparently prisoners are thrown over a balcony as part of the initiation. This may have even led to a person’s death in the Serco-run prison which was kept quiet until now and has been dismissed as well. 
We may never know what actually happened to the prisoner in Mt Eden because it has turned into a case of "maybe" or "maybe not" and "allegations" not "facts".

Then Minister of Correction Judith Collins at opening. 
From: NZPA
Last year Fairfax ran a story of an ex-prisoner describing his life behind bars at Serco-run Mt Eden. The description is fairly horrific and of course dismissed by officials. The prisoner spoke of being deprived of basic necessities such as toilet paper and how the prisoners threatened to riot. Back in 2011, there was another story about how Serco was accused of “bribing inmates with bigger helpings and food and television in their cells to encourage them to behave”. They probably weren’t getting strawberry shortcake or whatever stock photo Herald decided to use and dessert really isn’t the issue here. This accusation came from the prison officers’ union known as the Corrections Association who also suggested that this “allowed the private prison operator to get by with a skeleton crew but guards were feeling vulnerable and leaving on a daily basis”. 

It makes one wonder what kind of due diligence the government actually did before awarding the contract. Early this year there was a Financial Times article featuring a former Serco executive Richard Johnson who said Serco tries to win contracts at any costs and because they are aware that governments usually award the contract to the cheapest bidder, they will spend the money upfront to get the contract and then cut corners later to make it the cheapest bid. He added - "The trouble with poor outsourcing contracts is that “no one wins in the end — not the government, not the contractor...New figures released this week shows that Mt Eden priosn run by Serco has the most inmate assaults in New Zealand. We certainly aren't winning. The idea behind contracting out public services is that the private sector will bring innovations to the public sector. And while the majority of New Zealanders might not care about what happens to prisoners, what Serco is doing isn’t innovation. It is mostly about cutting costs and making a profit which is unsurprising. There's a difference between working profits and working within a budget which what governments do. Comparing government to industry is basically like comparing apples and snakes. Yes, I said snakes because at least apples and oranges are both fruits. Privatization is usually about transferring public wealth to private profits and it is usually driven by "knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing" in the words of Oscar Wilde.

This isn't the first time this has happened in New Zealand and New Zealand isn't the only place either. The previous National govt also allowed Mt. Eden to be run by the private sector, but that contract was canned by Labour and Alliance in 2005. I'm not suggesting that privatization is the sole problem either. The problem is even if the prison system wasn't privatized our Ministers probably wouldn't take responsibility. They would say it's an operational matter.

Meanwhile a prisoner custody officer died after being beaten by a prisoner in a Serco run prison in the UK earlier this month. In Australia, the Fiona Stanley Hospital review blasted its Serco contract. And school staff in Lincolnshire are "still not being paid" despite Serco and county council's assurances. These stories are all from this year and doesn't in anyway represent the magnitude of Serco's problems. But back to New Zealand. There’s absolutely no doubt that Serco has been in breach of contract. For instance see below from the contract and how much a prisoner's death is wroth in our society. 

This explains the fact Minister Tolley initially was fairly dismissive of about prisoner safety calling them “bad people”. Mt Eden is a remand prison and she was deliberately ignoring the fact that these people haven’t been found guilty in a court of law. While it might not be unusual for there to be violence in prisons, it shouldn't be accepted. And breaking the law doesn't make people "bad". That kind of primitive thinking is what leads to an ineffective justice system but perhaps that is for another blog. 

Over the weekend there were multiple stories with various titles suggesting that the Government was taking over Mt Eden prison following the accusations. This is extremely misleading because the government isn’t actually taking over but merely bringing in “upto 20 people to oversee the day-to-day running of the jail for the immediate future”. It is misleading because the contract hasn’t been terminated.

As Max Harris rightly says, Serco’s contract with the government does allow that. And further to that:

And it seems the Serco and the Minister have very different ideas of what is actually happening. Again Max Harris points out: 

Serco has been fined $300,000 in the past and we still don’t know what it was about. The lack of transparency which has been a hallmark of this government now extends to those we contract out to as well. Serco’s 10 year contract is valued at around $300million AUD and it's overall revenue globally is around $9billion NZD, so these fines may seem substantial but there is no doubt they will do everything they can to recoup those costs and it will at the expense of prisoners who aren’t seen as humans deserving dignity already by this government.

On Saturday, TV3 ran a story whose headline was Government still a fan of private prisons. With the Sky City debacle, Charter school problems, talk of further privatizations of housing and other social services, this should be a huge concern. But this is a central ideological position of the right. They can’t afford to be failure with Serco because this has the possibility to undermine the entire government agenda.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

These aren’t the xenophobes you are looking for

Yesterday’sHerald story on the housing crisis fueled by apparent Chinese foreign investment brought out the semi-regular discussion on xenophobia on social media. Suffice to say there are a bunch extremely defensive people who say that the data justifies the apparently non-xenophobic aversion towards Chinese house buyers. Labour absolutely made the wrong move defending their untenable position of picking on Chinese names to justify a policy proposal to ban foreign purchases.

Here are some things they could have done:

1. We have been given a list of Auckland home buyers from a specific realtor and we are deeply concerned at the suggestion that somehow Chinese people are to blame for the current housing crisis. We understand that foreign home buyers include people from China, Britain, America and a number of other countries but the government refuses to collect and publish that information making it extremely difficult to assess the impact of foreign ownership on New Zealand House prices. We reject xenophobic analysis of home-buyers using Chinese last names and instead ask that the government make efforts to collect information about non-resident home ownership.

2. We are concerned about the lack of representation of Māori and Pasifika names on the list which suggests to us that any policy needs to include ways we can increase Māori and Pasifika home ownership given housing poverty among these groups are the highest in the nation. The government has continuously failed address this problem.

Labour MP Phil Twyford
3. We think there are several factors that are driving house prices up and pushing Kiwis out of ownership. The Government urgently needs to consider policy options such as restricting foreign ownership, introducing a Capital Gains Tax, and finding ways to insure that wages keep up with housing costs. The government has failed to enact evidence-based policy to deal with the housing crisis that seems to be growing at an unprecedented pace.

4. This is what Labour would do in Government [insert non-xenophobic policy proposal] and this is why we believe this will ease the crisis [insert non-xenophobic impact analysis].

But Labour did not do this. Instead they sent one of their brightest performers, Phil Twyford, to go on The Nation and defend an allegation - foreign investment is shutting Kiwis out of the housing market - by using xenophobic data analysis based on extremely unreliable and inaccurate data.