Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Honouring the Thin Brown Line


I don’t know what other people do as they sit at a tangi or funeral service waiting for the korero or service to begin.  Increasingly, I find myself looking for familiar friends and faces, and thinking about those who are permanently absent, (at least from this world).  Last week,  I sat with good friends at  Te Kakano o te Aroha Marae  to celebrate the life of Kaylene O’Reilly, the beloved daughter of Taape and Denis O’Reillysocial activist, writer, and gang associate.

I was privileged to be seated at the front ,  sandwiched between Black Power member and community worker            Eugene Ryder,

(Eugene is the one on the right) and Superintendent Wally Haumaha Of Police National HQ.  

With Wally were two Police Iwi Liaison Officers.  It occurred to me that we had a shared history, and were all members of an ‘in-group/out-group’.  While we were all very much part of our own organisation’s basic values and beliefs, our lives and  interests constantly merged in pursuit of a greater goal.  None of us have a greater challenge in doing that than Police iwi liaison officers – and it suddenly occurred to me -they were the nation’s 'Thin Brown Line.' 

I first met Denis in 1972, when after a decision to leave a Catholic seminary, he worked as a field worker for the Tenant’s Protection Association.  We were both involved in Community Volunteers at the time.  I was Sergeant in charge of the Wellington Youth Aid Section, based in Newtown.  Denis came into my office imbued with a vision to make a difference in the world, and determined to change the emerging gang scene -which was much more difficult and dangerous that it is now.  I wasn’t very supportive; something told me that a young wild eyed Irishman attempting to grapple with the complexities of the gang culture wasn’t a good fit.  I was wrong.  Denis managed to get himself into a whole lot of scrapes, got arrested a few times, and by 1975 was the national organiser for Black Power.  But his big vision never faded; and he has pursued it for over forty years.  He went on to occupy a unique place in New Zealand social history, as social activist,  community development consultant and senior public servant. 

When Denis spoke about Kaylene, he recounted the miracle when seven years before, Kaylene had been administeredthe last rites, after being diagnosed with brain stem encephalitis.  Taape decided to call in a tohunga, Rangitihi John Tahuparae  who was  Parliament's first official kaumatua.  John administered a karakia, Kaylene emitted a loud sigh, and  was immediately healed - much to the amazement of medical staff and the Catholic priest. 


That story brought back earlier memories of John Tahuparae, who in the 1970’s was a member of Nga Tamatoa.   At that time, I visited the Kohitere Training Farm, Levin, for three days every month, doing group work with the boys due for discharge, setting them up with local community support and networking with their local Police Youth Aid officer, and other support agencies.  We would role play the kinds of situations they would face in the community on release - bullying, ethnic profiling, relating to social workers and people of authority, strategies for dealing with abuse and violence within the home, and identifying ways in which we might reduce future re-offending.  

Kohitere was a hellhole of a place.  The one saving grace was the counsellor at the time, Gary Hermansson, these days a  well-known sports psychologist. 

There were very few Māori support staff at the institution, and I talked Tahu and a couple of other Nga Tamatoa members into coming with me on visits, to teach te reo, tikanga Māori and kapahaka.  They made a hugely positive impact on the boys, although some institution staff were convinced that when the boys practised te reo, they were  talking about them. 

The Value of Māori Police Officers

At that time, we relied heavily on Māori Police officers to work at the margins with the emerging gang situation, and whānau.  

By the 1970’s,  the impact of earlier urban Māori migration began to impact on the crime rate, (the Māori youth apprehension rate increased by 50% between 1954 and 1958).  It was the Māori Police officers who were influential in maintaining a sometimes uneasy peace between the whānau of Māori urban migrants, and the justice sector.  Wellington policing would have been far more problematic in the absence of police officers such as Hoppy Hodges, Tony Olsen, Waho Tibble, Charlie Hohaia, Rangi Rangihika, Devon Paaka, Rana Waitai, and others, who acted as ‘honest brokers’ between the predominantly pākehā police service, and whānau. 

The 1970’s saw the formation of the ‘J” Teams – community teams consisting of representatives from the Police, Social Welfare, Māori Affairs and the community, who joined to deal with the emerging gang scene, and youth crime.  Once again, Māori Police officers were at the fore, demonstrating a capacity to build trusting relationships with offenders and their whānau, and exercise discretion appropriately. 

In the mid 1970’s, I recall discussing the added value that Māori Police officers brought to the service with other police managers.  It led to a piece of (totally unscientific) research, in which we looked at  the performance assessments of Māori Police officers from the point of recruitment through the first five years of service.   We compared them with the non-Māori Police officers with a registration number to either side, i.e. officers who were recruited and enrolled at the same time.  There was a very clear trend.  First, Māori officers tended to get lower marks for skills such as report writing, and attention to detailed administrative processes, but were rated higher in relationship skills, and the exercise of discretion.  After five years, they had caught up with their pākehā counterparts in the area of report writing and administration, and continued to improve in relationship building, and community engagement.    

The Police Iwi Liaison Service was formed in 1992, since 2000 a major part of their activity has been working with iwi to develop Iwi Crime Prevention Plans.  Māori membership within the Police has since increased steadily – there are currently 800 Māori Police officers out of a total staff of around 11,000.  . 

For those working closely with whānau and communities however, the place where the Police Māori Iwi Liaison staff make the most powerful impact, is with their work at the margins.  They provided a critical link between gangs, and crime families and whānau to the law and order establishment.  There have been countless occasions in the last 20 years, where the intervention of a Māori Police officer has served to de-escalate community and family violence, and to neutralise Police racism.  Their reputation within iwi and the Māori community is high, and richly deserved.  For many, they are the ‘Thin Brown Line’  - a place where people feel safe to share information, where views and perspectives are respected, but in the knowledge that their loyalty is to the Police organisation.    

Honouring the ‘Thin Brown line” 

Why the Thin Brown Line?  The Thin Blue Line   is a colloquial term for the Police.  The blue refers to the typical blue of the police uniform, and refers to the police forces in general. It may refer to the police as a "line" standing between good and evil (citizens and perpetrators), or may refer to the "line" that separates the police as an in-group from everyone else (with positive, negative or mixed connotations, depending on the person using the expression).

The Thin Brown Line are those Māori members of the Police Iwi Liaison Service who stand between the Māori community and the Police organisation.  Often they act as brokers between the two.  They enjoy the wide respect of both the Māori community and the community at large, and at times mitigate and mediate in the worst cases of Police misconduct. 

There is a growing view that Iwi Liaison Officers are undervalued within the Police service.  The Police decision not to involve Iwi Liaison staff, in Operation Eight, (the Tuhoe raids) while considered by the ICPA to be a reasonable decisionleft a sour taste in the mouths of Maori.  Certainly, the outcome would have been different and less traumatic, if they had been involved.   

I visited the Police College a couple of days after the Tuhoe raids.  Moana Jackson had just resigned as patron of the Police Recruit Wing at that time, in protest at the Police action.  I had been invited by Inspector Hurimoana Dennis to discuss with iwi liaison officers piece of work I did for the Police in 1998, which had contributed to its Treaty response strategy.  They were devastated by what had happened, and a couple were close to tears.  But what impressed me most of all thing, was that during the two hours I spent with them, not one word was uttered against the department or its senior officers.  It occurred to me then, that if the Iwi Liaison Service is indeed the ‘Thin Brown Line’ they are staunch in their support of the department.  That loyalty needs to be repaid in kind, and their significance in maintaining peace and preventing crime recognised. 

Smart on Crime

The Police currently lead the way in its ‘Prevention First’ strategies and  understanding of   community engagement.  The ‘Thin Brown Line’ are a critical part of that multi-stranded strategy and has demonstrated its ability to, in the words of the Police Oath discharge its responsibilities  “without fear or favour, malice or ill will” – a phrase that is at the heart of effective policing.  Active gang and community engagement – good intelligence, developing relationships with key leaders, providing opportunity for pro-social activity, but without compromising one’s personal and organisational integrity – is the challenge.  And the ‘Thin Brown Line’ do it better than most.  All of the above is being ‘Smart on Crime.’ 

Let’s make it our business to honour the ‘Thin Brown Line’. 

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The Thin Brown Line reminds me of the groups that formed in America around 1930s. Everything evolves at a time when it's needed the most. Although I cannot believe that karakia treated brain stem encephalitis, there is no doubt that if a person or a group of people believe in something from the bottom of their heart without a slightest doubt, than it will manifest in real life.

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