Monday, 27 July 2015

A Yankee in Middle Earth: Differences between US and NZ police

Our guest poster this morning, Monica Beth, observes her new New Zealand home through her native American eye.
Today:  Preliminary perspective on differences between US and NZ police.

I was stopped by a cop last night, and will recount the event at the end.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment, but please read this before you do.

To be fair, a routine complaint I’ve seen here in NZ in several different places online is that police do not respond to crime fast enough, mostly theft. So the police here seem to err on the side of neglect rather than force, but it can often leave Kiwis feeling like the police do not have their backs when it comes to fighting crime.…/briefing-inc…/frontline-services

There are police scandals here in NZ (mostly involving either sex abuse or neglect of sex abuse claims). There will always be abuse of power anywhere you go. There is no such thing as a utopia. But in general, I would say there is a greater sense of and respect for bringing police to justice when they do wrong, as well as the requirement to change the law or establish oversight when the system is clearly not working. Take the example of these NZ cops who were fined heavily for attempting to blame a civilian for an accident they caused.

To wit, the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA), established in 1989, is an independent body that considers complaints against the New Zealand Police and oversees their conduct.

Where can citizens in the US complain or appeal about police misconduct? (I confess I don't even know what the answer to this question is, or whether there is one.) Has anyone heard of a judge issuing a fine or a warning to a police officer in the US? Who polices the police?

Enforcement for traffic violations was something that was handed over to police in NZ in the 1980s, and the public has remained happy with it, but it's not something that has gone unexamined or unreviewed. Can you even imagine the concept of reviewing whether police should handle traffic offenses in the US, or whether those offenses should be handled by a different governmental authority?

The police in NZ have only recently been able to use tasers (I think since 2008), and guns are locked in the trunks of their cars. Naturally, this forces police toward a mentality of de-escalation. Arming cops with tasers has not been uncontroversial, and guns are not brought into the equation by police unless the person they are confronting is known to be armed and dangerous.

On average over the past 10 years, NZ police have killed 0.7 people per year in a country with a population around the same as Colorado. That yearly rate is more than 10 to 20 times that in Colorado, depending on the year.

Another telling historical fact. The word “force” to describe New Zealand’s "police force," was officially removed from the description in 1958.

Finally, contrast police recruitment in NZ (New Cops) with police recruitment in the US (NYPD, US Capital Police)

New Cops - Entry Requirements         image

The contrast between their web pages is stark.

On the NZ page (above left), we have a smiling woman in her early 20s with untidy hair, with a focus on friendliness and preventing problems before they happen, with headings like, "A strong desire to help" and "No worries." When they say they “don't want cookie-cutter cops,” that they are looking for folks with different backgrounds, experiences and interests, working towards the same goal, who have empathy and ability to solve problems, it seems actually believable. Sure, all web pages are essentially marketing, but this matches what I see on the street here, where cops are often talking side by side on the street, standing with people they've pulled over, going over something on a clipboard.

On the US pages, I see un-smiling faces, postures of preparation bordering on aggression, and worded messages that convey "toughness, pride, honour, authority." I also perceive a combination with nationalism.

I see a lot of well-intentioned libertarian folks blaming police abuse on what they think are unique problems in America, such as the drug war. Conversely, conservatives blame "thuggishness" among ethnic minorities. Liberals blame racism.

But New Zealand also has drugs and it also has a lot of impoverished ethnic minorities. The prison population is higher among these ethnic groups in NZ also, and it's universally acknowledged and widely discussed. One could mistake that for racism.

I also see US libertarians blaming things like big government. But the NZ police have much wider search and arrest powers in NZ than they do in America.

I'm sympathetic to blaming "Big Gov" but I confess I see it as useless question-begging. The existence of the Fourth Amendment doesn't seem to be any protection from unwarranted search and seizure anymore.

How did that happen? And how do we get the government to obey its own laws that it's already supposed to be enforcing? By making more laws?

I propose there are three differences here.

1) A culture of politeness and empathy has been and is being lost in the US. There is a TV show here in NZ about cops, and when they pull people over their inflection rises at the end of a sentence, and they do such things as refer to the person as "mate." Almost complete lack of a punitive attitude. Perhaps it's because they're being filmed and feel they have to be on good behaviour, but the situations are amusing rather than highly alarming, despite revolving around alcohol and drugs. The people who they are pulling over are treated as a temporarily incapacitated danger to themselves and the public. The focus is on de-escalation, safety, and prevention.... not punishment, respect, and authority.

2) The police here are not automatically armed with lethal weapons. They are only allowed to pull these weapons out in certain conditions.

3) Police conduct is independently evaluated by a non-police governmental authority. The police are themselves policed.

Last night I was pulled over for a routine traffic stop. This was the first time I was stopped by police here, and I didn't really know what was going on, though I knew I'd eventually encounter a traffic stop as they are routine here. I rolled down my window and the policeman muttered something politely and held a machine toward my face. I said, "I'm sorry, what's going on? I'm new here and I've never done this before." He smiled and chuckled, pulled the machine away, explained that it was breath analysis, muttered something else, and then put the machine toward my face again. Kiwis can be difficult to understand because sometimes they speak quickly, I don't always understand the accent, and their vocal tone can be quite quiet in comparison to Americans. So again, I said confusedly, because I didn't understand what exactly I was supposed to do, "You want me to blow into this machine?" He laughed again. "No," he said. "All you need to do is count to ten." When I was done, he showed me the results. "No alcohol." And then checked my warrant of fitness (a safety inspection you need to get done on your car every 6-12 months), then smiled and said I was free to go.

Basically, I see America's current problems as primarily a result of out of control anger, outrage, entitlement, and oversensitivity on the part of everyone. I see so much anger in my feed these days. Angry, angry, angry. Feeeeelings, whoawhoawhoawhoa feeeeelings. People are mad at anything and everything. I don't even mean this primarily as criticism of others and not myself, because I have to continue to examine and check these attitudes in myself as well. (This extends way beyond law enforcement or anything to do with government at all.)

Ironically, I think what America needs most is to do something that's illegal to do, which is to sit down on the couch, all together at once, and collectively smoke a joint or take some quaaludes. Then, and only then, *after* it comes out of being happily stoned, maybe it can figure out how the hell to solve its problems.

Monica BethMonica Beth is a new New Zealander from the States, a scientist trained to acute differences.
She is presently training her eye on the many differences between her country of birth and her new home.


  1. That's the positive side of the kiwi 'laid-back' attitude to policing. The negative side is that when a real (but non violent) crime is committed there's often little interest in pursuing the perpetrators.

  2. Neither force are interested in pursuing perpetrators, that's too much like work!

    The difference I perceive in the approach to public relations is similar to WW1 enlistments. It starts out voluntary, advances through public shaming, pretentious 'safety/security' requirements in the name of the group, then winds up with Archie Baxter tied to a post at the front by his own kinsman at gunpoint. Yankee policemen are just a bit further along in this than our lot.

    It's nice, I suppose, to live in a land with a kinder and gentler machine gun hand.


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