The Police Commissioner and a National MP have locked horns over a police operation targeting gang firearms, with the former denying accusations it is a “smoke and mirrors” exercise that consists of officers having “cups of tea with gang members”.
National’s police spokesman Mark Mitchell’s heated exchange with Police Commissioner Andrew Coster at a meeting of Parliament’s justice select committee today eventually prompted intervention from committee chair and Labour MP Ginny Andersen, who said she would shut Mitchell down for what she deemed excessive questioning.
Coster, who fronted the committee for the 2021/22 annual review of the New Zealand Police, was able to provide some clarity on the level of youth offending amid significant political interest - saying it had reduced in the last decade but there had been a spike in the last six months.
Speaking to the Herald after the meeting, Coster indicated his support for a cross-party agreement on criminal justice in his acknowledgment that competing political agendas could detract from establishing evidence-based solutions to reduce crime.
Coster appeared before the committee alongside several police officials, including deputy commissioners Tania Kura, Wally Haumaha and Jevon McSkimming.
The exchange between Mitchell and Coster was initiated after a question from the MP on Operation Tauwhiro - a nationwide endeavour to recover unlawful firearms and prevent firearms-related violence by gangs launched in February last year.
In March when police announced Operation Tauwhiro would be extended through to June this year, it was reported 1531 firearms had been seized and 1255 arrests made in relation to the operation since its inception.
However, Mitchell described the operation as “smoke and mirrors” and a “spreadsheet exercise”.
“In relation to gangs, my expectation is you’re not having coffees and building relationships with gang leaders, you’re finding out ways of actually arresting them and putting them in jail and you start with the leader and you work your way down.”
Coster prefaced his response by saying it was not his job to speak to the politics and outlining the value of Tauwhiro.
“We have learned a massive amount through the focus of that operation, it’s led to the establishment of a new firearms investigation unit which is tracing the transmission of firearms from gun shops to licenced owners to gang members.”
The pair then went back and forth over several points, with Mitchell demanding to know how what resources had been dedicated to Tauwhiro, which Coster could not provide because he didn’t have that information with him.
Pressed further by Mitchell, Coster said it was “a whole of policing effort”, which Mitchell rebuked as a political comment.
A frustrated Coster detailed how Tauwhiro had led to “significant change” in the approach to firearms and that “de-escalation” and “talking to people” were sometimes the best approaches.
“We’re not having cups of tea with gang members but we are talking to people,” Coster said.
When Mitchell attempted to ask another question, Andersen intervened to give other committee members the chance to speak, which Mitchell objected to.
“Shut me down, that’s fine,” Mitchell said to Andersen.
“I will shut you down, you had 11 questions,” Andersen retorted.
Asked about the exchange after his appearance, Coster said he understood the line of questioning.
He acknowledged it was difficult to separate what outcomes had stemmed from “business as usual” work done by officers and that done within Tauwhiro.
However, Coster said the operation had been “very successful” because firearms violence had returned to the “baseline level”, compared to earlier this year when gang tensions in Auckland prompted more than 20 drive-by shootings.
“Sometimes challenges emerge when there’s a big political debate. Police are less concerned with the politics and more concerned with the outcomes,” Coster said.
Youth crime had become a hot political topic this year following a spate of ram raids that began earlier this year and then morphed into a rise in aggravated robberies.
The Government has made several funding announcements to address youth crime and simply the youth court process, namely through a $53 million Better Pathways plan and fast-track intervention approach to youth offenders.
National’s youth crime policies were harsher, including expanding the use of ankle bracelets on offenders between 10-17 years old and sending repeat serious offenders aged 15-17 years old to military academies.
During his appearance, Coster told the committee youth crime had been trending down for years but spikes in violent crime like ram raids and aggravated robberies had been observed in Auckland and Waikato.
Of ram raids, which had increased by more than 500 per cent earlier this year, Coster said the lowest number of ram raids had been committed in the last month than any of the previous 12 months.
He later told the Herald the ability to explain youth crime clearly was somewhat compromised by the high level of political intrigue.
“Some countries have put criminal justice outside the domain of politics by cross-party agreement because the issues are extremely important and need cautious, evidence-based debate
“It is hard when there is a particularly elevated level of concern to have evidence-based debate and that’s not to detract from the concerns and we need to respond to them.”
Responding to a question from National justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith requesting clarity on whether overall crime was increasing or decreasing, Coster said the most recent crime and victims survey - which aimed to capture unreported crime - indicated crime had remained “largely static” in recent years.
He noted since Covid-19, town centres had become less populated, with more people working from home, leading to a decrease in household burglaries as offenders shifted their focus on retailers.
The “sharp spike” in youth crime in some areas had been attributed to children not being in school and the proliferation of social media enabling crime to be more widely broadcast to young people, Coster said.