“The more that we as a country can embrace the diversity that we have in our communities — and particularly the more we embrace Te Tiriti — the stronger we’ll be,” says Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

Andrew Coster became the head of the New Zealand Police just over three years ago, still in his mid-40s. As the police commissioner, he has a team throughout the country of around 15,000 who are charged with delivering a service, as he sees it, rather than being a “force”. Before this promotion, he’d nailed a law degree, been on the beat, been a detective too, and operated in court as a Crown prosecutor. So, he was well prepared for this job.

In this chat with Dale, which took place just before the shooting in Auckland, he talks about balancing restorative policing with calls to be tougher on crime.

He doesn’t gloss over his privileged background, which includes his high school years at King’s College in Ōtāhuhu — and growing up without any significant contact with families or communities doing it hard. Nor does he gloss over his Christian faith. He’s at home, too, in having the responsibility for keeping our communities safe — and with the kind of pressures that come in an election year when law and order become highly politicised. Progress so far? He’s proud of what the police have been achieving. 


Kia ora, Andrew. Thank you for taking some time for a chat. Let’s start with you telling us a bit about the Coster clan.

For sure. Our roots are in England, but our family has been in New Zealand since the late 1800s. I was born in Dunedin, but I’ve spent most of my time in Auckland. And I’ve had a privileged life. My family has never wanted for anything. I had a lovely home, and my parents were able to give me every opportunity.

And now I’m married to Jo, and we have three boys. One has recently joined the army, and the other two are in secondary school. We enjoy our time together. So, I feel blessed.

We live in Wellington now because of my job but we’ve moved around a bit. We had a couple of years in Dunedin when I was the district commander for Southern, which is Otago and Southland, and we enjoyed our time down there.

I see that your dad (Professor Gregor Coster, former dean of the Wellington Faculty of Health) was prominent in the health sector — and that you did some of your early policing in Māngere. I work there too, Andrew, so we both know that it’s a lively and interesting community. Where did you go to school? And did you have much contact with Māori and Pacific Island mates as a kid?

My secondary schooling was at King’s College in Ōtāhuhu. And that was a very privileged environment. But one thing that stands out for me about that experience is that, when I joined the police in Māngere a few years after I left school, I found myself at incidents, often family violence situations, in homes that were literally just a stone’s throw from King’s.

I saw a side of life there that I’d never seen before. Homes with no food in the fridge, no carpet on the floor, holes in the walls, drugs and alcohol — and the violence that came with that. That’s what the many of the kids in that area were growing up with.

I found it quite depressing for a time, realising that some people’s experience was so different from mine, and that there was this massive contrast in a small geographical area.

But what I also saw in those communities, in Māngere and Ōtāhuhu, is that there were so many really good people. People who were house proud and hardworking, often working more than one job and long hours to provide for their families. And who were very proud of their culture.

Obviously, the Pacific Island culture is strong out there. And, as the police commissioner, I’ve been able to engage more with iwi around policing initiatives — and that’s grown over the years. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to sit on marae, and I haven’t always understood everything that’s been said, but I’ve come to understand and appreciate the culture.

When I started policing, I had no appreciation of the nature of the relationships between the police and those communities. For instance, I didn’t know that, within recent living memory, some of the Pacific communities had experienced the dawn raids and the immigration policies that the police had played a key part in enforcing.

So here I was, policing in this environment as a young constable, and not understanding that the people who I was interacting with had a view of the police, and of who we were and what we did, based on events that I wasn’t even aware of.

Since that time, though, our organisation has become much better at equipping our people to understand the environment that they’re coming into, and to be able to respond appropriately.

I live just up the road from King’s, and I notice that King’s is also embracing an approach that’s more diverse. Such as providing, I understand, compulsory reo Māori for third formers. The police are changing too — and there’s a sort of a nationwide cultural evolution. Some people seem to be threatened by that. But are you?

No. Not at all. In fact, I think the more that we as a country can embrace the diversity that we have in our communities — and particularly the more we embrace Te Tiriti — the stronger we’ll be. And that’ll mean good outcomes for the whole community. For all New Zealand.

I think people who are unfamiliar with Māori culture really don’t appreciate its true strengths. There’s a lot of division and polarisation in our communities right now, and a real lack of human connection with the way we’re interacting through technology. We don’t seem to have the values in western culture to help us cut through those quite destructive influences.

But in Māori culture, people are at the centre. And that caring, and the manaakitanga shown to all the people who, for example, come to a marae or who join a Māori gathering, is incredibly powerful — and there’s no way we should feel threatened by that.

And, if we want our country to reach the potential that it can reach, this understanding is an important part of our journey — and it’s what makes our country distinctly New Zealand.  

There’s well-worn political rhetoric, especially when an election is looming, that we need to be tougher on crime. That it’s time for boot camps and so on. But if you’re committed to the way you see policing and how we might accommodate cultural influences to offending, I suspect you’re going to stick to your guns.

A key part of my upbringing, my worldview, and my beliefs, turn on my Christian faith. And, fundamentally, within that, there’s what I see as the potential of people — and, regardless of how damaged somebody may be, behind that there’s a human being.

And police have a role to play in keeping the community safe, and sometimes that means bringing a hard response to a situation where you have someone who’s doing significant harm to the community, and it’s our job to do our best to stop that.

But equally, if we’ve got somebody capable of being helped, the smartest thing we can do is bring a restorative response to that individual.

You know, we get these political conversations on this continuum of “hard on crime” or “soft on crime”. But it tells you nothing about whether the response is appropriate for what we’re dealing with.

Our goal is to be smart on crime. Sometimes that might look like something that’s a hard response and sometimes it might look like something that people would characterise as soft. But our aim is to select the response most likely to prevent crime and harm.

And, by the way, I stand by the way we’re working with iwi Māori because it works.

If you look at Te Pae Oranga as one of our restorative justice interventions for lower-level offending, you’ll see a 22 percent reduction in harm from reoffending for people who went through Te Pae Oranga compared to those who go through the district court for equivalent offences.

So, not only is it the right thing to do by those people, but it’s also more effective than the alternative.

One of the benefits of my job is that I have statutory operational independence. That means I’m not subject to ministerial direction on operational matters.

Frankly, the political debates can play on, but we’ll continue to do the things that actually make a difference to prevent crime and harm.

Andrew Coster greeting te Tumuaki o te Kīngitanga, Hone Tamihana, at the opening of the Cambridge police station. (Photo supplied)

I’ve been broadcasting for 30 years, and I’ve seen significant change in that time. I recall when iwi liaison officers were established, and also the “turning the tide” kaupapa. Marae panels too. So we seem to be in a constant state of change and revolution.

Well, we continue to evolve as an organisation and in the way we’re policing. And our environment is changing rapidly too. But I think we’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years about what works, and we’ve opened up considerably in the way we work with communities to tackle some of the underlying problems that drive crime — and that, for me, is tremendously encouraging. You know, police officers join our organisation to make a difference.

When I look around at policing internationally, New Zealand is miles ahead of most of our counterparts on this way of working. That development has come about over a long period under successive commissioners who’ve had the courage to step into things that haven’t traditionally been a part of policing.

We’re going through challenging times, and some things are heading in the wrong direction — for instance, the youth disengagement from education following Covid and the lack of mental wellbeing that we’re seeing in our communities. There’s quite a lot of anger in our communities relating to what we’ve been through, and pressure on families which leads to family violence.

Some of these challenges are playing out in very harmful ways, for example through the recent spike in youth crime, such as ram raids. This offending is causing a lot of harm in our community and it’s understandable if people are angry about that. However, if we want the behaviour to stop in a sustainable way, we need to understand the dynamics that are driving these behaviours and respond appropriately.

It’s tempting for people to say let’s just go back to the way we used to do things. But we need to recognise that, as our environment changes, we’re going to have ups and downs.

The question is, are these things that we’re doing as long-term initiatives the right things to do? And I fundamentally believe that they are.

But there are issues, like poverty and addiction, that plague our communities but which we can’t expect the police to address.

Exactly. Most of the things that drive crime are not under the control of the police. But we can influence many of the things that drive crime by how we work with the government and, probably more importantly, with some communities.

The term police “service” rather than police “force” has come into use. What’s prompted that?

Internationally, the police are generally described as forces rather than services. That’s a feature of history and, for me, it describes part of what that organisation can do and sometimes needs to do. But a part of our function is to prevent crime and keep the peace.

So, the term “police service” more accurately reflects the nature of what we do.

Policing by consent is an old concept that goes back to the history of policing in New Zealand and comes from the United Kingdom. It’s part of a set of principles named after Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), a British prime minister, who’s regarded as the father of modern policing. And among his observations is this: “The success of policing is not measured by the visible presence of police, but by the absence of crime.”

We rely on the support of most of the community to be successful and that depends on the way we operate and on the extent to which people feel that they can trust us and that what we’re doing is appropriate. Of course, if you have a polarised country, then you see disagreement across the community about what “good” looks like. I think that’s where we’ve been in the last little while.

Speaking at Government House during the NZ Police 35 year Long Service and Good Conduct medal presentation, in September 2020. (Photo: Government House)

We’ve had this recent situation in Ōpōtiki — and I respect the way police handled that. Yes, there was some interruption to everyday life, but a lid was kept on what could’ve been a very explosive situation. But there was pressure from some quarters for police to handle that differently. What would you say about that situation as an example of the change in attitude to modern policing and our country?

The balancing act for police is working out the most appropriate ways to hold offenders accountable, to discourage that behaviour in future, while at the same time not adding to an already tense situation and pushing it into disorder. And there aren’t always easy answers to that, but we’re working hard to get that right.

Gangs represent so much of what is dysfunctional in some parts of our community, and no one wants to see that on our streets. But, by the same token, we need to look at what was actually going on there. There were offences committed, and offenders have been held to account for those offences.

But, actually, the things that people find most objectionable — the visible presence of gangs — most of it’s not unlawful. And so, we have to walk a tricky line in terms of managing it appropriately — and I think our people do a good job of that.

The royal commission of inquiry into abuse in state care shows us that the genesis of many of the gangs has been the sad experience of those who were locked up in state care and banded together. They’ve had very challenging lives, as we’re aware. So it helps to look historically at some of the contributing factors to the situation that we’re confronted by?

The most significant thing that I notice is family harm. That sits at the root of so much of what goes wrong in our communities. So often it’s the dysfunction of families that’s the common factor for people who end up in prison.

Most commonly, young men in gangs don’t have a sense of purpose, don’t see where they belong, and they’ve often had a lot of trauma to deal with in their lives.

Of course, the gang environment is not homogeneous. At one end of the spectrum, there are generational, whānau-based gangs who’ve been part of particular communities for 50 years. And then, at the other end, you’ve got groups who’ve been seeded by offenders who’ve been pulled out of Australia and who have a very strong orientation towards organised crime.

The term “gang” is too generic to be helpful in many situations. It covers a high-end motorcycle gang that’s peddling harm into our communities and exists for profit, which is quite different from a gang that’s been a part of a particular community for generations and is characterised as much by whānau connection as it is by anything else. We’re very simplistic in how we talk about a complex problem.

Andrew, you graduated with a law degree from Auckland University, and you could’ve had a pretty cruisey life as a lawyer, couldn’t you?

Yeah. I guess I could’ve done that.

Well, why didn’t you? 

Well, as you’ve noted, my father is in medicine, and my mother was a nurse. Community service is a strong driver in my family, but there’s also a faith aspect. I’ve had a strong sense of calling to the work that I do in police. I feel that it makes a direct and tangible difference for our country and in our communities.

And that sense of positive impact and contribution is important, from my perspective. And so is being confident that I’m in the place where I’m supposed to be rather than just going after what might be an easier option. It’s a privilege to do this job. It’s for a limited time only, but I value the chance to make a difference in it.

When you look back across your career, are there some situations that you take special satisfaction from, Andrew?

Every day, I see evidence of our people understanding our strategy and going after it wholeheartedly — and, as a result, making a positive difference. Just the daily stories you hear of the difference that we’ve made for an individual, that will have a lasting benefit for the community as well. There are lots of those stories and that’s where we feel we’re making a difference.

When it comes to major situations, the parliamentary protest in February last year was very challenging. There were three weeks of intense scrutiny and tension. And everyone had an opinion about what police should be doing. It would’ve been ideal to resolve that situation without the violence we saw on the last day. But the way police went about dealing with it was world-class.

There were people who were feeling incredibly aggrieved and needed to express that view through protest. But they were met with professionalism, teamwork, and restraint from the police staff. You won’t see a better display anywhere in the world in that kind of situation. And that, to me, spoke volumes about the character and the culture of our organisation as it is today.

That was in contrast to some of what we’ve seen in the past and certainly what you see in other countries. It was a gratifying outcome for me in the role — and seeing how our people dealt with that was one of my proudest days in the police.

Historically, the New Zealand police have been predominantly Pākehā men. But now we see more women, more Māori and Pasifika. Others with ethnic backgrounds, including Indian and Chinese. This diversity must be encouraging for you.

Absolutely. Really encouraging. I’ve mentioned the limited life experience that didn’t prepare me for my policing role in Māngere. But now our recruits have this greater depth of experience and cultural backgrounds. It’s this diversity in the organisation that’s enabling us to respond appropriately to the communities where we’re operating.

It’s fantastic and we’re a richer organisation because of that. And seeing people from such diverse backgrounds being willing to join the New Zealand police is also a reflection of the organisation that we’re becoming and have become. There’s lots to be proud about in that.

We’re not sugarcoating the police scene, eh, Andrew? There’s still much to be done. But in conversations such as this, I like to veer away from the hardcore serious stuff and touch on lighter things too. Being in a high-profile, high-pressure job, what you do to keep yourself fresh? You may be a gardener or a skateboarder. Don’t know. But the stage is open. How do you keep yourself up for each day’s mahi, Andrew?

Quite a range of things. I think it’s important for each of us to look after our own wellbeing because you can’t help others if you’re not looking after yourself. So I’ve got a daily rhythm around fitness, reflection, and time with family. And those rhythms are important for me to manage this job and this schedule — and not only to have a sense of wellbeing, but also to have hobbies that I enjoy.

I love motorbikes in all their guises, and I do a bit of motorcycle racing. That’s something I’ve been able to do with my oldest boy, which has been pretty cool. Then, more recently, I’ve got back to skydiving, which I did many years ago — and my middle boy has become keen on that. With my youngest boy, I’m doing white-water kayaking. These hobbies involve a bit of high excitement, and they’re also a great escape from my day-to-day work.

Motorbikes? What does that amount to?

I ride on the racetrack and off-road. So, I’ve got a dirt bike as well.

Andrew Coster on his Aprilia RSV4. Motorcycle racing is one of the hobbies that provide an escape from the daily pressures of his job as the police commissioner. (Photo supplied)

What’s your go-to machine?

I’m on an Aprilia RSV4, which is an 1100cc sport bike. So there’s plenty of excitement there.

I reckon. Do you ride in a national series or something?

It’s club racing that I’ve been doing. I haven’t been racing for very long. This year was just my second season, but I enjoyed being out there. You can’t think about much else apart from what you’re doing when you’re on the racetrack. It’s a pretty cool activity.

Very much so. I like motorcycle racing myself. What a neat way to keep you fresh. Is your bike warranted and rego’d, Andrew?

It doesn’t need to be because it never goes on the road. It’s a dedicated track bike. And it’s an amazing bit of machinery. I enjoy the maintenance as well. Just working with my hands. I find that satisfying. I like gardening too. Anything outdoors. It’s kinda nice to do some manual tasks when you spend so much time in the office.

And I’ve generally tried activities that I can do with the family. I’m mindful that you have your time with your kids at this age only once. So, with this job, I have to try and strike a balance.  

It’s been neat meeting you, Andrew. Thank you for having this kōrero with us. I appreciate your willingness to have a call of this type.

Thank you very much. And all the best with your mahi.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2023

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