New Zealand police at the Auckland Pride Parade (Image: Cam McLaren/Getty Images).

The course that’s building a more diverse police service, and why it’s so important

For 15 years Unitec has been working with the New Zealand Police to help diversify its intake of students. Jihee Junn looks at how Unitec’s ‘pre-police’ course is changing the demographics and culture of the police service. 

On a dreary, rainy Monday evening in Mount Albert, Sergeant John Brown is delivering a speech in front of a classroom of around 18 aspiring police students. Midway through his talk, he reaches into his navy blue vest and pulls out a tattered piece of A4 paper. It’s well-worn from the years of constant folding and unfolding; Brown explains that it’s a list of goals he wrote down in 2003.

“Back then, it was to go back to school, go to police college, work with Pacific youth, and find a girlfriend and make her my wife,” he tells the class.

More than a decade on, he’s accomplished every single one of those goals (including the last one – he’s off to a movie night with his wife later in the evening). Now, he’s got his sights set on a new goal: he wants to become a senior sergeant, a role held by just 5% of police officers in all of New Zealand.

Sharp and charming, 42-year old Sergeant Brown has been in the police for almost 14 years. He decided he wanted to become a police officer in his late twenties but realised he had to brush up on a few things having left school early to work and help support his family of 11. “Schooling was never my thing. I always got the same school report all the way through high school: lots of potential but didn’t use it, easily distracted or distracted others,” he recalls.

A celebration of 15 years of Unitec’s Pre Police Course (Image: supplied)

To compensate for his early departure from school, he signed up to Unitec’s Pre-Police Course, a 14-week programme that provides extra training to meet the academic and fitness levels required to join the service. When Brown attended back in 2003, he was one of the first ever graduates of the newly minted programme which was designed to encourage more Pacific and Māori to consider a career in policing. Today, the course is in its 15th year, having ushered through more than 400 graduates from a diverse range of ethnicities who’ve all gone on to serve in the New Zealand Police.

“We honestly didn’t think the course would be going this long. We thought that maybe after a year or two the need would stop, but the police kept engaging with us [in order] to try and diversify the police,” says Stephen Matai’a, a former tutor who helped write the course back in 2003.

LISTEN: Tomorrow’s Jobs Today episode 4 – Building diversity in our police. 

He says the course was put together in a very specific way, focusing on helping students pass the academic, psychometric and physical aspects of the police entrance test, which is mandatory to pass in order to train at the Royal New Zealand Police College (RNZPC). The course honed in on numeracy, literacy, and problem-solving skills, as well as helping students meet the physical requirements required to make rank. And while the course initially focused on just Pacific and Māori students (Brown recalled that his class of 2003 was entirely Pasifika), the course was later expanded to reflect the growing diversity of Auckland’s ethnic makeup, helping to usher in New Zealand’s first Tokelauan officer, first Hungarian officer and first female Indian officer.

“The benefits of diversity [in the police] are a no-brainer. It’s language, it’s culture, it’s awareness, and it’s getting us into fields we weren’t able to get into before,” says Brown, who’s helped on a number of cases involving Pacific people throughout his career, including acting as a liaison for the family of Halatau Naitoko, the 17-year-old Tongan boy accidentally killed by police in 2009 during a motorway shootout.

“We use culture to get us into these doors… To this day, we’re actually still good friends with the mum and the grandma [of Naitoko], and we still get invited by them to church for Sunday lunches.”

Stephen Matai’a helped write the course back in 2003. (Image: Tina Tiller/The Spinoff).

Glenn McKay (Te Arawa), a former police officer and now executive director of Māori transformation and student experience at Unitec, says he’s also had numerous first-hand experiences where having the right linguistic and cultural skills have proved hugely important.

“There was an incident where a young Samoan man who was kicking off and challenging the police,” he says. “I know the Samoan police officer that turned up, started conversing with him in his first language, and the next minute, the young fella just sat down and said ‘Okay, I hear what you’re saying’”.

McKay joined the police in 1999 and recalls that things were “a whole lot different back then”. He joined because he wanted the police to be better than what it was in terms of the way it serviced Māori people and its communities. After all, Māori – who make up just 15% of the overall population – have always been grossly overrepresented when it comes to crime stats. The most recent incarceration rates show that 52% of those locked up in our male prisons are Māori, 63% of the women in prisons are Māori, and 73% of the young people in our youth justice are Māori.

The only Western country with a higher rate of imprisonment than New Zealand is the US, where 748 people per 100,000 are in prison. But in New Zealand, the statistics are defined by your ethnicity. We lock up around 180 non-Māori per 100,000 people. But for Māori, that’s closer to around 700.

Glenn McKay of Unitec (Image: supplied).

The root of the problem is complex and multifaceted, and simply having a more diverse police service certainly isn’t going to fix decades of systematic bias overnight. But it does go a long way in helping to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem. A report released by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) in 2015, for example, showed that Pākehā offenders were more likely to be given a formal warning for minor crimes than Māori, who were more likely to be charged. Many of these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and, more often than not, reflect an institutional bias held by organisations like the police.

“The police are often the first people someone will come into contact with within the criminal justice system and the police have a huge amount of power to use discretion in certain circumstances,” says Dr Katie Bruce, director of criminal justice advocacy group, JustSpeak.

“We know back in 2015, the police commissioner Mike Bush admitted unconscious bias in the service. They’ve had programmes in place to try and address it, but it’s very tricky. It’s something you find all around the world and it’s not something that’s unique to New Zealand.”

In the same way unconscious racial or cultural bias exists within our justice system, it also exists in adjacent areas like police education and recruitment. To an extent, the Pre-Police course was designed to help remove some of those barriers and introduce people to New Zealand Police standards. For example, part of the police entrance test involves gauging the applicant’s verbal reasoning, and within that contains an element of cultural bias.

“Usually, there’ll be something in there like ‘green is to envy as red is to…’ type of thing, and you have to fill in the blank,” explains McKay. “If you’re a New Zealander or if English is your first language, red obviously means anger. But for people from other ethnic backgrounds, red might not necessarily mean anger, nor will green necessarily mean envy.”

Furthermore, Unitec’s Pre-Police Course has also been tailored in a way that emphasises the collective and the use of group work, which generally suits the learning styles of Māori and Pasifika students more than individualised learning.

“Some students are good at maths, some students are good at English, and some students are good at running, so everyone helps each other and works together,” says Matai’a, who tutored the course on-and-off for around seven years.

“The friends that they make on the course are the same friends they end up going to police college with, the same friends they go and work together with on the streets. A lot of these people want a change in direction, and a lot of them are doing it for the financial benefit as well. We have people who worked as storemen and factory workers who just want a change in career.”

Prior to doing the Pre-Police Course back in 2012, Constable Chesna Sanders was working as an assistant sports coordinator at a local high school. There, she developed a passion for working with young people, but also wanted to be in a profession that would allow her to work with the Pacific community.

“After a lot of research, I realised that policing was a career where I could embrace the skills I had as well as continue to learn and work with youth,” says Sanders who, after four years in the job, is now a Youth Aid Constable for the New Zealand police.

“Being of Kiwi and Tongan descent, I’ve been able to explain aspects of my culture which my colleagues have openly received. It’s helped my colleagues to become better police officers, communicating more effectively and exercising respect when dealing with people from my ethnic group.”

A young girl who met Constable Chesna Sanders at the Auckland Down Syndrome Association Buddy Walk in Auckland. She now wants to be a police officer like Constable Sanders (Image: supplied).

As a woman, Sanders also knows that historically, policing was seen as a profession exclusively for men. She knows there’s still a strong perception of there being a male-dominated culture within the police, disincentivising many women from applying or even considering policing as a possible career. Sanders, however, says her experience as a policewoman has been “full of opportunities and encouragement”, adding that current women police officers need to become “more vocal in sharing their experiences and passions for the job” in order to encourage more women to join. The police say its aim is to have women make up half of all recruits, a goal which it fell well short in 2017/2018 with just 36% of RNZPC graduates being female. However, it was still the best year for female recruitment the police has ever achieved, which is pretty admirable for an organisation that pedalled sexist ads less than 60 years ago.

When it comes to ethnic diversity, police recruitment is also improving. Of the recruits who graduated from the RNZPC in 2017/18, 6.9% were Pacific and 9.7% were Asian, which falls reasonably close to broader population levels. However, Statistics New Zealand estimates that these ethnic groups have grown significantly faster than the population as a whole since 2013, which means that now more than ever, it’s vital for the police to keep pace with our rapidly changing demographics.

“For me, it’ll never be good enough. We’re still underrepresented in terms of overall numbers when it comes to Māori, Asian, Pacific, female and young people. So as a whole, there’s still a lot more work to do,” says McKay. “One of the things I think that doesn’t help is the police are trying to make it more attractive to people, but that’s a hard sell these days because policing has changed a lot over the last 10-15 years. The police aren’t paid that well either, and the shift work [is a hard sell] too.”

“As much as I’ve spoken about breaking down these barriers, there are still trust and confidence issues. There are still perceptions about not being able to trust the police, which is one of the key things for me. [That’s built on] experiences and connections and… having police officers that look like [the people they serve], going to cultural things, being seen and being active all help. As a Māori male, if I see a Māori cop, there’s already a level of trust there because you can connect on a level outside of him wearing a blue uniform.”

In 2003 the Pre-Police Course was created because the police realised it needed to reflect the community it served. The demographics of society were changing but its workforce wasn’t. Its normal channels of recruitment were proving ineffective, which is why institutions like Unitec and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa were called on to help service that need instead. Of course, McKay is right though: despite all our efforts, it’ll never be good enough. But for a course that’s been going for 15 years, boasting more than 400 graduates from a diverse range of backgrounds to its name, that’s at least something to be proud of.


Unitec offers a friendly and diverse learning environment with flexible study programmes, lots of support, and hands-on experience to build the skills you need for your future. So if you want a career – professional, vocational or trade – then visit unitec.ac.nz and apply today.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.