In a new article on The Conversation, University of Canterbury’s Dr James Mehigan writes that now is the time to reform our criminal justice system and move beyond the history of colonial policing.
The imminent sentencing of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the 2020 murder of George Floyd will be closely watched around the world. While the crime happened in the United States, its resonance in the Black Lives Matter movement has been truly international.
In New Zealand and Australia, the June 25 sentencing offers an opportunity to take stock of racial disparities in their own criminal justice systems. They may be geographically distant, but we shouldn’t imagine the underlying cultural problems are exclusive to the US.
Floyd’s death was not just brutal and outrageous, but also distressingly routine. While some high-profile police killings of Black people have made the news and triggered protests and rioting, countless others have gone without the same coverage or impact.
For every Eric Garner (suffocated in 2014 by the NYPD while saying “I can’t breathe”) or Freddie Gray (who died of a broken spine after his arrest in Baltimore in 2015), there have been multiple other cases.
The conviction of Chauvin is therefore to be welcomed, not least because it shows such prosecutions can be successful. But it’s also important to remember that US policing itself has not necessarily changed very much, despite the past year’s protests and ongoing advocacy for reform.
At heart, the police remains a brutal institution. Some US police forces can be traced back to slave patrols in the 1700s, established to chase down escaped slaves or quell revolts. The culture of an institution built by one race for the subjugation of another is hard to change without some kind of radical reinvention.
Policing in a post-colonial era
Again, this is not something confined exclusively to the US. The police forces of New Zealand and Australia were established as component parts of a colonial project that clearly harmed and disadvantaged their respective Indigenous populations.
This foundational fact is reflected in the reality of policing today. Police forces built to enable colonial subjugation will not change simply because sections of modern society have developed a more progressive racial outlook.
Even if you argue the history of colonial policing does not actively inform contemporary police cultures in Australia and New Zealand, there is no denying the outcomes for Indigenous people in their criminal justice systems are lamentable.
It is now just over 30 years since the landmark report of Australia’s Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody