Auckland police officers are learning Mandarin and downloading WeChat in an effort to engage with the city’s growing Chinese community.

In 2016, Auckland was ranked as being the fourth most ethnically diverse city in the world. New Zealand’s Chinese population is expected to increase to about 1 million by 2025.

Auckland City Māori responsiveness manager Scott Gemmell, who works in all diverse communities, said the pilot language and cultural programme had been a success.

By the end of the 10-week level one programme, the 20 officers who graduated could introduce themselves in Mandarin, say a bit about their role and what station they were from.

The course was taught by volunteers from the Chinese New Settlers Services Trust, and the 11 who graduated would go on to be taught level two Mandarin by the Confucius Institute – a language and cultural educational partnership between the University of Auckland and the People’s Republic of China.

The outcomes of the pilot course were two-fold: the officers were able to better understand the Chinese culture and felt more comfortable engaging with the Chinese community, while the community feedback had also been positive.

Chinese community leaders at the graduation told Gemmell they could see staff were genuinely trying to break down barriers in communication and culture.

“That can only be positive moving forward – to have our communities feeling a lot more confident engaging with police,” he said.

“When there’s a barrier or a concern about a cultural understanding people will be a little bit more reticent about coming forward.”

Small cultural understandings, like knowing where it was OK to place a hat when in someone’s house, and not writing names in red ink, went a long way in building trust and engagement.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said it was important for police to be able to communicate with the growing Chinese population in New Zealand.

“It was another step towards breaking down barriers,” he said.

Especially for people who may not have had a good relationship with police in their hometowns in China.

Over the past couple of years, the Chinese community had also been the target of thefts, especially handbag and phone thefts.

Victims of crime needed to feel comfortable reporting crime and engaging with police.

It was impossible to say how much crime affecting the Chinese community went unreported due to cultural and language barriers – “you don’t know what you don’t know” – but improving language and cultural knowledge could only help, he said.

Pros and cons of WeChat

Over the past few years, law enforcement agencies around the world have made a concerted push to engage with communities on social media.

New Zealand Police have become increasingly active on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Cahill said police needed to understand and engage with the people they serviced, and social media was a great tool for that.

As well as using the platforms to seek information, and post prevention notices, it also increased police visibility and trust in communities.

Chinese social media platform WeChat was the medium of choice for most of New Zealand’s Chinese.

The Chinese social media platform, messaging app, payments channel and retailer is the dominant digital player in mainland China and its creator, the Hong Kong-listed Tencent, is among the world’s 10 largest companies with a market value of more than $US500 billion, surpassing Facebook last year.

Police had been posting messages on WeChat for a while, however, most officers were unaware of WeChat, Gemmell said.

Part of the pilot’s cultural training component included officers downloading the app on their phone and submitting their homework via WeChat.

But the use of WeChat raises unique issues, with some countries expressing concerns about the use of Chinese technology, and the gathering of data.

Like Australian Defence Force personnel, New Zealand police officers were not allowed to download the WeChat app on their work phone due to security concerns.

A 2016 Amnesty International report into the privacy of social media messaging apps rated Tencent and WeChat 0/100.

“Not only did it fail to adequately meet any of the criteria, but it was the only company which has not stated publicly that it will not grant government requests to access encrypted messages by building a ‘backdoor’,” the report said.

Gemmell said the types of apps and websites officers were able to access on their police phones was limited, in order to protect sensitive information.

For the course, officers were encouraged to download the app on their personal devices to get to know more about the platform the Chinese community was using, and submit their homework via WeChat.

Cahill said he was not concerned about the use of WeChat, adding that police had rigorous data security measures in place to stop information falling into the wrong hands.

Wider rollout

District ethnic liaison co-ordinator Jessica Phuang said there had been interest in starting a new intake of level one students, and potentially rolling the programme out across Auckland’s remaining two policing districts.

New police officers were now also requited to undertake a full-day of cultural competency training, which covered Māori, Pasifika and Asian cultures, as well as dealing with the issue of unconscious bias.

Gemmell said he hoped cultural competency training would soon be rolled out throughout the force.

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