Branded the ‘wokester commissioner’ by the opposition, Andrew Coster has spent a year as the country’s top cop, during a time when social norms and the public’s expectations of police behaviour are rapidly changing. Justin Giovanetti speaks with him about Black Lives Matter, Police Ten 7 and consent-based policing.
Andrew Coster doesn’t really fit the mould of what you’d expect from a police commissioner, less the gruff veteran than the boyish face of institutional change. While he has years of policing under his belt, instead of talking tough he chooses to emphasise community and consent.
In his first year he’s found more than his share of upheaval – head of a force described as weak on gangs and crime in parliament by the opposition, and personally labelled a “wokester” by National MP Simon Bridges. The force was also called racist by the country’s race relations commissioner (a position he later walked back). Adding to his plate, a significant culture of bullying was identified by an independent audit.
Speaking with The Spinoff in his eighth floor office in downtown Wellington, Coster acknowledged the challenge that police face and spoke about his plans. Rather than the social justice warrior depicted by Bridges, Coster said he is guided by a deeply held Christian faith. He said his mantra is simple: “do the right thing.”
Coster took over the commissioner’s office last April during the first days of lockdown. While Covid-19 dominated the world’s attention, an avalanche of disturbing images showing widespread police brutality flowed in from the United States over 2020. The repercussions from Black Lives Matter and its focus on racial inequality continue to reverberate for the commissioner.
“The rate of change, social change and changed social expectations of policing, is faster than at any time in our history and that lines up with change across the world,” said Coster. “I see it as my role to make sure that we as an organisation navigate that successfully and we are what New Zealanders want from their police, now and in the future.”
Bridges said at parliament that police seemed to be spending too much time on hui and finding consent instead of finding criminals. The fuzzy language around policing by consent has struck some critics as little more than public relations. Coster’s position is that they’re sides of the same coin – you’re going to need policing by consent if you want to catch those criminals.
In his mid-40s and a father of three boys, Coster joined the police as a young man who wanted to be a detective. He thought he could make a difference in police, and that difference would come from busting bad guys and throwing them in jail. Now sitting with a sweeping view of Wellington harbour, he sees things differently. His whole career seems to point towards adopting a more expansive view.
The police force, which he tends to call “the organisation”, is at the bottom of society’s funnel. Most of the bad stuff is created long before the police become involved, he said.
He points to New Zealand’s “structural challenges,” which are family violence, youth crime and organised crime. “To make a difference we need to look at those issues through quite a broad lens, because most of those problems are created upstream from us,” he said.
That means that along with focusing frontline resources on gangs and organised crime groups that have become more willing to use firearms, Coster has also tasked constables with helping figure out how to avoid the minor criminal convictions that turn young people towards gangs.
While he was a detective, Coster took night classes in law. He saw a crown prosecutor in action on a homicide case and figured he could make a difference there. So he became a crown prosecutor. He then put his uniform back on, realising there was room for someone like him in the police force, and shot up the ranks. He got a masters in public management and was seconded to the justice department to make the court system better and fairer for people after their arrest.
Just over a year ago, prime minister Jacinda Ardern decided he was the man to lead change at the New Zealand police, replacing a retiring, and much more traditionalist predecessor in Mike Bush. In the role he found a world where calls for defunding the police were finding some support, including in New Zealand. His view that police need to constantly find community backing for their actions seemed to fit the call of the moment. He said the “thin blue line” can’t exist without most New Zealanders supporting what police are doing.
Looking back at his first year, Coster said he enjoys being “stretched” by his job. That’s a useful quality in a man who now finds himself at the centre of the country’s debates on authority, policing and race relations.
He sees the US as a cautionary tale of what happens when police no longer work with their communities. From Missouri to Minneapolis, last year provided numerous examples of largely white police forces using military equipment and aggressive deployment of tear gas to exert force in largely minority areas.
“Those major events overseas have been an illustration of what we need to avoid. Through Covid we’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about how you police an entire population through buy-in, because Covid was one of those situations where if people didn’t get onboard with it we would have a major problem,” he said.
Coster stresses that New Zealand’s police are different from those overseas. Their training and equipment is different. They are taught to de-escalate and talk through issues, not to immediately reach for guns or handcuffs. Is it his view that some people in New Zealand, especially those calling for defunding the police, don’t understand the difference between constables in Matamata and sheriffs in Montana?
“Maybe,” Coster said, sounding a little uncomfortable. “But I think the risks that exist in policing overseas are something we can’t afford to ignore here. We need to understand the perspectives of people who are concerned about policing and the impacts it might have that are undesirable. Our style of policing needs to protect us from those things.”
Most New Zealand cops remain unarmed and that will continue, he said. Citing the public’s unease, Coster pointedly didn’t formalise armed response teams after the trials of permanently armed police ended. Instead, the greater challenge now remains a force that disproportionately arrests Māori and Pasifika youth.
Earlier this year RNZ revealed that police had been photographing young people across the country, collecting their personal details and adding it to a national database. In many cases they weren’t arrested for any crime, but were out in public when approached by constables.
“Over recent months we’ve been challenged on a range of fronts, which relate to how police do our job, whether it’s appropriate, whether it’s fair to all people. The norms here are shifting quite dramatically as well,” he said. “You don’t need to look too far back when people would have been expressing some pretty old school views about how they want to be responding to some young people who might be causing some difficulty.”
Despite some differences of views within the force, Coster said most constables understand what’s needed of them and are happy with changes under way. “This isn’t an organisation that has been dragged kicking and screaming, this is an organisation that can see the future,” he said.
He insists that concerns and debate about photographing youth are welcome. “It’s really about saying, ‘OK, police do have a role to play in preventing crime by engaging with people in our community. What are the reasonable boundaries of that?’ There might be some opportunities for us to improve how we’ve been working,” he said. “But people also need to understand that there are always trade offs.”
At many points during a 40 minute conversation he signals that he’s open to any debate and talk that involves what the police are doing. There’s one area he’s not really interested in though – personal attacks like that from Simon Bridges. He doesn’t want to talk about the wokester line. “I’ve really avoided getting into the personal conversation because I’m driven by what I think is the right thing to do,” he said. “I’ll keep doing what I think is the right thing.”
As the head of one of the country’s largest workforces, Coster can’t and won’t take any negative view of the police. He’s clearly proud to be the commissioner, thinks the force is “awesome” and at most is willing to admit that some things could be improved. Even when talking about change, he stressed that it doesn’t mean what police have “done in the past was inappropriate, bad or wrong.”
One of the recent points of friction for the New Zealand police has been the show Police Ten 7. It’s a ratings hit but it’s become divisive in recent years. Auckland councillor Efeso Collins called for the show to be cancelled because of its portrayal of young Māori and Pasifika men. Then race relations commissioner Meng Foon entered the fray by agreeing, and saying that the show showed far more brown people than white people getting arrested, ”therefore it is racist”. It’s not just bias in the show, he added that police as a whole are racist, later saying that was “incorrect” and any racism was “systemic”. Former show host Graham Bell chipped in to say the show just reflects the world as it is, saying “crime and its uncomfortable truths are not going to disappear if they get rid of Police Ten 7.”
Coster disagreed with the notion that police are racist, but otherwise attempted to navigate a middle ground through the furore, saying issues with the show are created by its producers. “The risk with any media is that it will focus on the more extreme ends of anything and won’t give you that middle ground – because it doesn’t sell newspapers or make great TV,” he said.
“Police Ten 7 shows the sharp end of frontline policing, it doesn’t show everything that we do, particularly when we think about our efforts to prevent crime. How that’s portrayed, in the end, is up to the people who tell the story.”
But whose story is it? A few hours after my interview with Coster, Tim McKinnel looked at the agreement between the show’s producers and police in a story for The Spinoff. The wording of the agreement said that in exchange for access to constables, the show’s producers give police final say on what makes it onto TV. It’s unclear how often police exercise that editorial control.
The police are navigating difficult questions of race and its role in society, as well as a workplace culture that needs clear improvement to deal with racism. As he approaches a year on the job, Coster says he reflects on the force through his family sometimes. “I have three boys and one of those boys is probably interested in joining police and I want this to be an organisation as a parent I’d be happy for him to join,” he said.
So is it? Coster takes a moment to think. His eyes narrow. His tone is different when he starts talking again. “Look, I would have no problem with my young person joining New Zealand Police right now. [But] could we be better? Absolutely.”