Large proportion of Māori among the more than 400 people to be convicted draws concerns about police biasA police officer on patrol in Wellington during the first day of New Zealand’s first lockdown in March last year. Dozens of people have been sent to prison for Covid breaches. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
More than 400 New Zealanders have been convicted of breaching coronavirus restrictions, with one in five of them sentenced to prison terms.
New Zealand passed new laws in May last year that gave the Ministry of Health special powers and provided a legal framework for closing businesses, enforcing lockdowns or creating stay-at-home orders during the pandemic.
Over the past year, thousands of New Zealanders broke those rules – with more than 7,500 breaches recorded across the country.
Most breaches of New Zealand’s Covid rules don’t result in prosecution, but according to new Ministry of Justice data, a total of 640 people were charged with Covid-19 related offences, and more than three quarters of those, or 460, were convicted. Of those convicted, almost 20%, or 85 people in total, were sent to prison. The vast majority – nearly 80% – of those charged and convicted were young men.
However, justice system advocates said the arrests indicated racial bias and profiling in the enforcement of Covid rules.
The data revealed a significant racial tilt in the enforcement of Covid-related orders – nearly half of those charged and convicted were Māori, despite the fact Māorimake up just 16% of New Zealand’s overall population.
Tania Sawicki Mead, the director of advocacy organisation JustSpeak, said the new data showed how structural racism and bias worked in policing. “There’s a lot about it that isn’t surprising – it reflects the massive discrepancy in decisions that are made every day by police,” she said. “This shows how racism is tied up into that judgment – those decisions about who, at face value, deserves good will and the benefit of the doubt.”
Mead said “huge amounts of discretion” were being exercised by police across the country about when to lay charges or pursue prosecutions, and the data also reflected where they focused time, effort, and patrolling.
“Lots of people were almost certainly breaking Covid restrictions all the time … but people in affluent white neighbourhoods were not the ones encountering police on their daily walks or trips to the supermarket,” she said. “It’s not really about who broke the law, it’s about where police were at any given point as we all figured out how to live under these strict new rules.”
A study of census data by JustSpeak from last year found that when first encountering police, Māori with no prior contact with the justice system were seven times more likely than Europeans to be charged by police.
A spokesperson for the New Zealand Ministry of Justice declined to comment.
A spokesperson for NZ police also declined to comment on the specifics of covid enforcement prosecutions, but referred to a statement from last month announcing plans for new research “examining where bias may exist within police policies, processes, and practices”.
In that statement, Commissioner Andrew Coster said bias in policing continues to be “a much talked about issue within communities”. He said the police would use the research to help “deliver on our commitment to Māori, and the Treaty [of Waitangi], by ensuring our actions are fair, reasonable and proportionate for all New Zealanders”.
It’s not clear how New Zealand’s policing of lockdown rules compares to other countries. In the UK, police issued almost 16,000 fines for breaching lockdown rules in the first half of 2020. London police made international headlines for arresting mourners at a memorial for Sarah Everard, for gathering in breach of lockdown rules.
Some other countries have also faced accusations of racial profiling in policing Covid restrictions. A report by Amnesty International noted a significant increase in use of “stop and search” powers on black people in London after the introduction of Covid-19 measures.
In Seine-Saint-Denis, a Paris neighbourhood with a high percentage of black residents, police checks were more than double the national average and the number of fines was three times higher than in the rest of France. In the United States, the New York police department arrested 40 people for social-distancing violations from March through May – 35 of whom were black.