Teuila Fuatai: Gaping holes in hate crime data collection

OPINION:

There’s an important, ongoing shortfall in New Zealand’s approach to tackling hate crime.

Essentially, we don’t have accurate statistics to measure it.

A recent report on police data quality shows the haphazard nature of progress in the area.

Released last week, the annual report highlights significant inconsistencies in how police record offences motivated by hatred.

Overall, it shows only about 40 per cent of hate crime offences are recorded accurately. Further, the majority of incorrectly recorded reports are downgraded to less severe incidents.

Commenting on the report, Police Association president Chris Cahill highlighted two main difficulties around the recording of hate crimes for police staff.

First, the staff member may not understand whether an offence qualifies as a hate crime.

Second, and closely linked, is the lack of a specific hate crime offence in New Zealand. It should also be noted police refined how they recorded hate crime victim-related offences following the Christchurch Mosque attacks.

“Police have traditionally recorded offending around offence codes and incident codes, and as there is no specific incident or offence code for hate crime, it is not naturally recorded,” Cahill told Radio New Zealand.

“It has to be added to the drop-down box [in police systems] and that’s when the perception of the individual officer or even the individual offender comes into play.”

He also touched on the possible impacts of poorly defined hate crime data.

“If we recorded everything that might have an undertone of racism or sexism, we might actually miss the really important data we want,” Cahill said.

“As an example, these public order offences – if every offence where someone yells out racial abuse on the street was recorded as a hate crime, we might lose the important data that is a build-up of hate crime against homosexuals or against Muslims because you’d have hundreds of thousands of reports and … you wouldn’t be able to sort out the wheat from the chaff.”

Currently, what we refer to as a hate crime in New Zealand is an offence that has been motivated by hostility towards a group of people because of their race, colour, nationality, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or disability.

While there is no stand-alone offence like in United States jurisdictions and in Britain, under the Sentencing Act hateful motivations are considered an aggravating factor.

Unfortunately, Cahill’s comments and the recent data are not a particularly inspiring summary of police action around hate crime.

Yes, data collection without purpose is unhelpful. I also agree that expecting police staff to identify targeted discrimination in the context of a hate crime is a risky undertaking.

The structural biases in the police, and inevitably among individual staff, means a lot more work is needed to ensure this process is carried out accurately.

However, casting a wide net when it comes to recording different components of offences such as “racial abuse on the street” should not be dismissed. The characteristics of complainants in those incidents should be recorded.

For example, if someone is being verbally abused based on their gender, or because they are Muslim, that is important information. Collating that information is key to getting a comprehensive picture on hate crime – a call repeated over the years by a range of human rights advocates, including the Human Rights Commission.

Ideally, collection of hate crime data by police would link neatly to a corresponding, distinct offence. As highlighted by the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch Mosque attacks, legislative change is a work in progress.

In the meantime, police must adjust their practices to accurately capture the current state of hate crime in New Zealand.

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