Dr Jarrod Gilbert: The police have deemed me unfit to undertake crime research because I know criminals

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Dr Jarrod Gilbert has been deemed unfit to undertake crime research because he knows criminals. Photo / NZME
Dr Jarrod Gilbert has been deemed unfit to undertake crime research because he knows criminals. Photo / NZME

Sitting in front of me is a 20-page document. It's my police file. It doesn't say much, because 17 of those pages are completely blacked out.

I requested my file because I've been deemed by the police to be unfit to conduct research - I've been banned from accessing basic and uncontroversial police data. As an academic who studies crime, this is rather crippling. It's also a staggering abuse of power.

The police have deemed me unfit because of my "association with gangs". This association won't surprise many people: I did New Zealand's largest ever study of gangs. It was long, exhausting and sometimes dangerous work, but it was worth it. The research culminated in an award-winning book, and academic publications all around the world.

READ MORE: Academics could be blacklisted by police

To get my results I used - in part - an ethnographic method; in other words I hung out with the gangs. I have been deemed unfit to undertake crime research because I know criminals through studying crime. Bloody hell.

I sought to understand police thinking by requesting what they have recorded about me on my police file. In reply I got pages of black ink. Everything has been redacted: censored.

I know a lot of what's underneath the black ink, because I was photographed, my licence plates were noted down, and I was asked to provide my details to the police on numerous occasions during my fieldwork. This may sound unusual, but this is how police keep tabs on gang members. When I was with gangs, they quite naturally did the same to me. If you think there might be something more sinister under that black ink, I certainly don't know what it is. What I do know is that with it blacked out I can't defend myself. This Kafkaesque nightmare began when I was leading five researchers (all but one have PhDs and two are full professors) who were working for a large government agency wanting to investigate alcohol-related harms. Part of this project required some basic crime data from the police. It was then that I discovered the lengths police are going to to control research. This is not simply through excluding academics, as they did me, but through contracts that have to be signed to gain basic information. In our case legal opinions suggest that it should be available to any person who asks for it under the Official Information Act.

The degree of control the police sought over research findings and publications was more than trifling. The research contracts demand that a draft report be provided to police. If the results are deemed to be "negative" then the police will seek to "improve its outcomes". Both the intent and the language would have impressed George Orwell.

Researchers unprepared to yield and make changes face a clause stating the police "retain the sole right to veto any findings from release". In other words, if an academic study said something the police didn't like - or heaven forbid was in any way critical of the police - then the police could stop it being published.

These demands were supported by threats. The contracts state that police will "blacklist" the researchers and "any organisations connected to the project ... from access to any further police resources" if they don't abide by police wishes.

The implication is this: Do it as we want it, and release findings that we don't object to, and you can get police data. If not, find another occupation. I have spoken to a number of researchers who have had terrible experiences with this process but live in fear of information being cut off. They don't complain. They feel they can't.

I have no such reservations, and actually I have little choice. Criticising public bodies is an important part of my job - the Education Act defines one of my duties as being a "critic and conscience".

In this column and on my blog I have held to account the Police Commissioner (for saying a cop who planted a shell casing to get a conviction had "integrity beyond reproach"); the former Minister of Justice (for defending illegal police behaviour that led to the collapse of an undercover operation); and the former Minister of Police (for using wildly inaccurate gang data). None of these calls were popular for those concerned, but few would argue that they weren't important.

After seeking information from the police about their sinister research contracts and to understand why I am banned, I am little the wiser. I have been told the decision to ban me is being reviewed. What I do know is that in an open democracy that puts such a high currency on free speech, the police should not be seeking to muzzle legitimate academic inquiry.

My failure to solve this situation thus far has led me to write this piece, although I'm obviously aware of the possible repercussions of doing so.

Writing this is not simply an exercise in telling an important story highlighting serious concerns around academic inquiry and free speech. It's also a call for help.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He specialises in research with practical applications.

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- NZ Herald

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