Democracy undermined by biased policing

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
31 March, 2023

In a liberal democracy, the police are crucial to maintaining order and enforcing the law. But recent incidents, such as the disruption of British feminist Posie Parker’s event in Auckland, have raised concerns about the police’s ability or willingness to carry out these duties impartially.

Parker’s event was violently disrupted by protestors, resulting in physical assaults on her supporters and a forced cancellation.

The police did not prevent this from happening. Instead, according to Parker, they subjected her to an extensive bag search on arrival and made her hotel cancel her booking.

This is not an isolated incident. It fits into an emerging pattern of selective law enforcement.

In 2019, activists occupied land at Ihumātao in Auckland for over a year, defying an eviction notice. The protest ended not with the police enforcing the law but with the government purchasing the land from the developer.

Similarly, selective enforcement was evident in the police’s selective handling of various Covid policy breaches. While Brian Tamaki got arrested, a Black Lives Matter rally was tolerated.

The occupation of Parliament in New Zealand last year also highlighted this issue. After their initial – and legal – protest, the occupiers ignored notices from the Speaker to leave. The police only intervened after nearly a month of inaction.

To take another example, in 2020, the police introduced a policy of not chasing fleeing drivers. Unsurprisingly, it resulted in a significant increase in unknown offenders fleeing from arrest. If the law is not enforced, breaking the law becomes more attractive.

The state has the exclusive right to use force, and citizens trust the state to maintain order. The police must uphold this order consistently and without bias, even if it is inconvenient or goes against the political mainstream.

Civil disobedience does not and cannot excuse police inaction. People who engage in civil disobedience should expect to face consequences. That is part of the deal. If the state does not respond, civil disobedience turns into state-sanctioned activism.

Selective enforcement of the law has created a situation in New Zealand whereby even violent disruption, as occurred at Posie Parker’s event, seems an effective strategy.

There is a reason the symbol of justice, the goddess Justitia, wears a blindfold. It is because all state institutions should apply the law without bias.

Once policing becomes partial, inconsistent or political, it ceases to be the kind of policing we expect in a liberal democracy under the rule of law. That puts democracy itself at risk.

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