The stoush between National MP Simon Bridges and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster continues.
Appearing before the Justice Select Committee this morning for Parliament’s routine annual review of Government organisations, the Tauranga MP and National’s justice spokesperson asked: “Commissioner, do police still arrest criminals in New Zealand?”
Bridges suggested police weren’t turning up to complaints of gang activity, based on what he said he’d heard from his constituents.
But Coster pushed back, saying police had been “as focused as it’s ever been” in tackling gang crime and did attend complaints.
Coster acknowledged, however, that there had been an “escalation” in gang activity and presence throughout the country.
“Much of that has been driven by the prevalence of Australian returned offenders,” he told Bridges.
He said this meant new groups were being established, like the Rebels and the Mongols, which had “disrupted” the “relative peace”.
“We are concerned by the increase in gang violence. That’s why we’ve launched Operation Tauwhiro,” Coster said.
The operation focused on investigating and disrupting the illegal supply of firearms to gangs. The long-term, nationally-coordinated operation will see each police district run their own "tailored initiative" alongside iwi and community groups to offer support that can help address the underlying causes of violence.
Coster said 12 people on the national gang list currently held a firearms license.
While “that does not sit well” with police, gang membership alone couldn’t legally exclude someone from holding a license. The Government’s new firearms legislation was also “unlikely” to change that, he added.
Bridges also pointed out: “Operation Tauwhiro doesn’t apply a single new resource.”
He said while Coster said police did attend complaints, “that is not the lived experience anywhere in New Zealand at the moment”.
Coster didn’t accept the claim, saying police were "proactive" and that he had 10,000 officers available. He said 700 of those had a focus on organised crime.
But, when asked by National MP and corrections spokesperson Simeon Brown, Coster said only 239 of those positions had been filled. He said funding over five years would get numbers up to the 700 mark.
When people reported crime, police “deal with them appropriately”, which didn’t always mean police needed to prosecute and arrest people, Coster added.
He said this was in line with police’s new approach of “policing by consent”, where police would operate in a way that the public would trust them to keep law and order and trust them with their power.
Bridges had labelled the approach and Coster “woke” earlier this week. Today, he asked whether the new approach was why the police had “tipped the balance” to becoming soft on gang members.
Coster said policing by consent was needed now more than ever.
“When we look overseas and we see the violent clashes that have occurred between police and ordinary citizens over Covid-lockdowns, over Black Lives Matter, that is what it looks like when police lose the consent of their community."
Policing by consent had nothing to do with how the police handled gangs, Coster said.
“We are as firm as we have ever been with gangs.”
National leader Judith Collins said yesterday Bridges’ position didn’t reflect the party’s.
"I've always made it very clear we don't attack the commissioners, it's the ministers who set the agenda,” Collins told RNZ.
"I have spoken to Simon and I've made it clear that the focus needs to be on the government and the ministers and the fact that the ministers have promised extra police and yet the police have stopped recruiting."
Collins yesterday said National had received figures which showed gang numbers had reached nearly 8000 nationwide.
But there are caveats to the statistics, as noted by gang expert Jarrod Gilbert. In a Newsroom column, Gilbert wrote police figures about gangs could be “highly inaccurate” because it didn’t take into account people leaving gangs.