Police Commissioner Andrew Coster took up as his role as top cop in the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown last April. He talked to senior writer Claire Trevett about his first year in the job, the 'wokester' accusation and gangs as well as the toughest time he faced: the death of Constable Matthew Hunt.
When Police Commissioner Andrew Coster took over the job a year ago, one of the pieces of advice given was to realise it was impossible to please everybody all the time.
He gives himself a high grade for this measure: "I think I've been successful in not pleasing everybody through the whole time I've been in the job," he says.
Coster discovered quickly that being the brunt of political attack and criticism was part of the job. The Police wield a lot of power, and so also attract a great deal of scrutiny.
One of the most theatrical was National MP Simon Bridges' recent description of Coster as a "wokester".
Bridges said that was prompted by concern at the direction Coster was taking: "the whole thing of what Police are doing under him has changed to 'by consent,' more hui and understanding."
Bridges said that had come at the expense of a focus on actually catching criminals, and a rise in violence and gang activity.
Coster talks a lot about a "collaborative" approach to policing, the "journey" he is taking Police on, and the need for "community buy-in" for actions police take.
Such catchphrases do not necessarily fit with political tough talk – although it was Coster's focus on community that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern highlighted when saying why Coster was appointed to the role.
But while Coster resists jabbing back at Bridges, but does defend himself over the point Bridges made, saying it was possible to both catch criminals and do what Bridges calls the wokester work: trying to stop people becoming criminals in the first place.
He says nothing has changed on his watch in terms of tackling organised crime.
"The basis of what we are doing on organised crime is what we have always done: investigation, taking assets, prosecution. That's a given. What we are doing is bringing to that some other layers that if we don't do them, then we'll be doing the former forever and a day."
Asked about the public meetings National MPs have held to talk about gangs in places such as Tauranga and Napier, Coster is diplomatic – but won't let himself be pushed around and makes it clear he takes a different view of things.
"I think the rigour that comes from scrutiny of what we do is healthy, it's part of being in a democracy. We will stick to our relationships with communities, and our understanding of the facts.
"We will be informed by those other conversations but recognise that not all of them reflect where communities are at."
One of Coster's first moves was to decide not to roll out the Armed Response Teams that Police had been trialling, saying it was clear the community did not like the prospect of permanently armed police.
He said Police were currently working on how to improve the current system of dealing with high-risk situations to ensure staff were safe - but in a way that did not get a backlash from the public.
Coster is concerned about increasing gang violence, saying while gangs have always had access to firearms "what has changed is the propensity to use them."
"They are using them predominantly on each other, but that shouldn't make us feel any better about it. That is the situation, it is mostly turf wars as we've seen new groups pop up, often seeded by Australian arrivals and that has created a disruption in the landscape that has led to tension."
"That is a concern for us, it creates a risky environment for our own people and it makes communities fearful."
His instructions to the front-line staff had been to focus on organized crime and illegal firearms – but also to try the stuff Bridges considered 'woke' – working with communities to try to reduce the appetite for joining a gang in the first place.
"As long as there are young men willing to join gangs to replace the ones who have been arrested, we will still have the problem."
Both those aims were part of Operation Tauwhiro: a project Coster began this year to try to address gang violence. Bridges and Act leader David Seymour have questioned whether that is any more than a PR stunt: saying its aims were vague, and there was little resourcing for the cops on the ground to carry it out.
At the other end of the spectrum, Coster has found himself criticised for not being woke enough: in recent weeks, the Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards and Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon have all had a go over various police practices such as the use of CCTV, and sending photographs of young people on the street into a Police database.
This week, Foon retracted his statement that Police were racist – a comment that had drawn an objection from Coster.
Coster says what New Zealand expects from the Police is no longer the traditional cops and robbers stuff.
"This isn't unique to New Zealand. I think it's a bunch of quite important conversations happening that are shifting social norms and therefore expectations of policing at a rate that I've not seen in my time."
He sees it as his job to deal with that debate and try to ensure it did not hurt those on the front line.
"The thing I'm concerned about is to make sure our people realise we value what they do out there every day. If I have to manage a few of these other conversations, well that's part of my role."
The Hardest Time
Dealing with such criticism pales in comparison to dealing with the death of a Police officer on duty.
Coster says the hardest time for him and the force over the last year was the death of Constable Matthew Hunt, who was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop in Massey last June.
"A lot of the other things that happen you kind of roll with, and you go 'well that's just part of the job.' But you never want the loss on one of your people to be part of the job.
"You can't overstate the way that event reverberated through the organisation because he was doing what we do thousands of times every week across the country, a vehicle stop, and without warning was shot and killed.
"That's a big thing for our people to grapple with and it brings to life the importance of the responsibility we have as leaders about how we keep our people safe. When we have a range of expectations of Police, this is some of the stuff that our people grapple with and have at the backs of their minds as they go about to keep their children safe."
A Baptism by Virus: Covid and Crime
If you judge a Police Commissioner's success by the crime rate, Coster has had a rip-snorter of a first year.
There was a 6.6 per cent drop in crimes in 2020 – including a 15 per cent drop in burglaries: one area Coster promised to focus on when he started the job.
The numbers would have been even more impressive if reports of assault had not spiked up 12 per cent due to the creation of new family violence offences.
Coster does not judge success by the crime rate, saying only about 20 per cent of crime was reported.
"I would never declare it as a useful measure of police success – in either direction. To be fair, we have claimed credit for that in the past and I think that's something we need to think differently about."
Nor does he flatter himself by assuming the 2020 drop had anything to do with him: he gives almost all credit to Covid-19 and the lockdowns.
Coster's first year was something of a baptism by virus.
Coster officially took over April 3, in the first week of the level four lockdown. Beards were all the rage in the police force at the time.
One of his first instructions to the front-line staff was to shave those beards off. He started with his own.
It was, he said, a practical measure: front-line cops had to wear masks. Masks and beards are not a good fit.
The beards were the least of his worries during Covid-19.
"It fundamentally changed overnight what we were doing. Normal crime dropped through the floor and we had this new responsibility of playing our role in keeping the nation safe from a new threat. So it was a big change."
He has said a balance between community buy-in and enforcement was needed over the lockdowns - a period in which there was questioning about Police involvement in iwi-led roadblocks, the legal authority Police had to enforce lockdown measures, and the need to address "police state" accusations.
Police also kept a distant watch over protests about lockdowns, despite pressure to intervene and penalise protestors who were flouting lockdown in August and September last year.
Coster defends the decision to take a light hand, pointing to other countries' experiences.
"Most other countries had scenarios where Police clashed with protesters over lockdowns in a way that didn't help the public health objectives. A lot of that comes down to the tone around enforcement. It's stressful times for a lot of different people, and so the way Police responded was pretty key to a good result.
"I think we did okay. Things here or there you might fine-tune, but it went really well."
All Police Commissioners have to deal with scrutiny of culture issues both within the Police and in their interaction with the public: questions of racism, sexism, and sexual misconduct.
Coster says the revelations of the 2007 Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct – sparked by Louise Nicholas' highlighting the way Police handled allegations of sexual misconduct against their own – was the low point for him.
"But we need to be clear, I never saw in my experience prior to that any of the worse behaviours that came out. The worst of those behaviours were only ever in pockets."
He believes the Police have a very different culture now – a result of changes from that inquiry, and inquiries by the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
Coster said his focus was on ensuring the leadership within the Police was fit for the modern day, and suited the more diverse force.
Coster recently released a report on bullying within the Police, saying the finding that concerned him most was that one in four Police reported bullying or harassment in the past 12 months.
"In no universe is that okay and it shows me we've got a lot to of work to do. But you balance that with 80 per cent saying it was a great place to work."
Life outside the Police
Coster lives in one of Wellington's western suburbs with his wife and three children.
The rebel of the family is Benny the rabbit. There are reports Benny is an outlaw, prone to breaching wandering livestock rules, and mounting garden invasions on neighbours.
Coster prefers to describe Benny as "free-range" but admits he possibly should be in custody.
Coster is also a man of faith, a regular church-goer at a non-denominational church in Wellington, and says the values of his beliefs do underlie his police work.
In one of his first interviews with the Herald back in 2020, Coster voiced some trepidation about the increased public recognition that came with the job, saying it was not something he was used to.
He laughs when asked if he too is feted wherever he goes and asked for selfies, as director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield is.
"I don't know if I'm as popular as Ashley, sadly."
He has been called at in the streets "but only in good humour. You do get the odd sideways look in the hardware store."
"It's a bit weird, to be honest. It's not my favourite aspect of the role. I prefer to get on and do what needs to be done. I prefer not to be publicly recognised, but it comes with the role and it's been a bit unusual."
His son wants to be a police officer – and this makes Coster proud.
Coster notes rather wryly that after watching his father in the job for the past year, his son has not yet voiced an ambition to be Police Commissioner, though.