Timothy Morrison believes if he was not "targeted" by police as a young Māori, his life may have turned out much different.

Growing up as a disadvantaged teenager in a broken Māngere home, statistically-speaking Morrison was destined for gangs and a life of crime.

But he said many of the crimes he was prosecuted for, including offences like littering, abusive language, and a failed manslaughter prosecution in 2012, might not have been pursued by police were he Pākeha.

Morrison, now 51, a paramedic and into his second year of medical school, is seeking an urgent hearing of his Waitangi Tribunal claim into the role of police bias in prosecuting Māori, so young Māori men and women don't miss out on opportunities he did.

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Morrison gained his first conviction, for burglary, at age 14, and was in prison at 16.

There he fell in with gangs and an early adult life of crime. Over the next seven years he racked up 40 convictions.

Timothy Morrison has lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal over police bias in prosecuting Māori. Photo / Supplied
Timothy Morrison has lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal over police bias in prosecuting Māori. Photo / Supplied

Deciding to change his life, he spent nearly two decades in Australia with no convictions.

After returning to New Zealand and studying to become a paramedic, he defended himself in 2012 from an attack at work by an intoxicated man.

The man fell and later died. Police charged Morrison with manslaughter, despite him not having a violent criminal record.

Morrison was found not guilty, but the negative effects of the manslaughter prosecution were devastating and ongoing.

That experience gave Morrison an insight into what he saw as police bias, and he did not want any more young Māori to miss out on opportunities he did.

"If police had taken a different approach when they came across me as a 14-year-old child playing up I believe that I would have been at this point [studying medicine] 33 years ago," Morrison said.

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"The manslaughter prosecution in 2012 was just one more roadblock."

Morrison lodged his police bias claim with the Waitangi Tribunal in 2016.

"I want this claim heard urgently because Aotearoa New Zealand is missing out on the potential of young Māori men and women."

That Māori were disproportionately represented in jail, representing 15 per cent of the population and more than 50 per cent of those in prison, was well-known.

Lesser known was the role police discretion plays in rates of prosecution, said Smail Legal director Roimata Smail.

Her team had taken on Morrison's claim and filed an urgent application to have it heard this year, because "a lot of young Māori men and women are missing out on their potential".

"Police have a wide discretion about whether to prosecute and the claim alleges that this discretion is not used fairly for Māori.

"The claim alleges over-prosecution of Māori may be the biggest factor in the high numbers of Māori in prison, a social statistic that is widely known and damaging to all Māori as it creates a stereotype of Māori as criminals."

However, there was very limited reporting by ethnicity on the decisions police made regarding prosecutions.

Smail said this lack of data meant any police discretion was not being exercised in a transparent way.

One area where ethnicity-differentiated statistics were publicly available was in relation to children and young people (10- to 16-year-olds).

"The data is disturbing, and demonstrates Māori children and young people are prosecuted five times as much as non-Māori."

Smail said there was evidence these patterns continued into adulthood for Māori.

The claimants wanted to see police reporting publicly by ethnicity on how it was exercising the discretion to prosecute, and to establish a new body or bodies to look at prosecution decisions to determine whether bias against Māori might have had an influence.

Morrison said his claim was not an attack on police officers.

Most individual officers entered the police to serve their communities, but frontline officers were being set up to fail because organisation was not confronting bias, he said.

Morrison urged police to support the urgent claim, and wanted to work with them to support Māori and support police officers.

The Waitangi Tribunal has given police until March 6, to respond to the urgent hearing application.

Police would not confirm to the Herald if they supported the application.

Police Deputy Commissioner Andy Coster said in a statement they would not comment on specifics of Morrison's claim, other than that they saw "value in ensuring that the wider issues raised by his claim receive a thorough hearing".

Police would be making submissions to the tribunal about how these might best be "progressed in their entirety".

"While we acknowledge all people have unconscious biases, we recognise the negative consequences some biases can have for individuals and communities," Coster said.

"Police are actively working to mitigate unconscious bias, including through education and awareness, and by examining our policies and processes."

Coster said many of the issues raised issues would likely be relevant to the criminal justice kaupapa inquiry, that appeared on the Waitangi Tribunal's future schedule.