Police Minister Mark Mitchell has taken the unusual step of releasing a letter of expectations for Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.
Mitchell has so far refused to state whether he has confidence in Coster after being critical of Coster’s leadership of the police in the past, and Coster has not offered his resignation.
Coster was appointed as Police Commissioner in 2020 for a five-year term until April 2025.
Mitchell released the letter on Wednesday night, saying he had met Coster that day to agree to the expectations and to release the letter publicly.
“I have been open about the fact I do not agree with the direction policing has taken under the previous Government and I expect the Police Commissioner to focus on core policing with a back-to-basics approach.”
Mitchell was highly critical of Coster’s “policing by consent” approach since being appointed and has campaigned on tougher gang laws and tougher youth crime measures.
The letter of expectations sets out National’s key policies, including those in its first 100 days plan, including gang patch bans, and law changes to give police more search powers and stop gang members associating with each other.
It also includes Mitchell’s wish for Police to use the powers that they are given, to target youth crime, to focus on “core policing” in communities.
There is also an expectation around Coster’s leadership:
“Commissioner, this letter outlines expectations that will require strong and decisive leadership of Police to overcome what are, in my view, significant challenges with regard to law and order in this country. It also presents a significant opportunity for you and me to work together to overcome these challenges and address my concern about a decline in public confidence.
“Our New Zealand Police organisation and frontline staff are working in a far more complex, demanding and dangerous environment that requires focused, strong and supportive leadership. My expectation is for that leadership to be evident.”
It said Coster must report to him on progress on the expectations, as well as brief him on issues of significance and high public interest – a standard procedure.
In return, Mitchell promises to provide the tools and resources needed. However, he has not exempted police from cost-savings measures National is requiring of government departments. The letter notes Coster has advised him of fiscal pressures, but says he expects cuts in back-office roles and in contractors and consultants, and the savings spent on the front line instead.
The letter acknowledges some of the practical difficulties: it notes that recruiting and retaining police officers is difficult because Australia recruits from New Zealand, and many staff are heading into retirement. However, Mitchell said that was not enough to budge on police recruitment targets.
Police Commissioners have protection by law of their operational independence: the way decide to undergo day-to-day policing.
However, Mitchell said that the Policing Act did allow a minister to expect a Police Commissioner to deliver on the Government’s direction and priorities and those had now been outlined in the expectation document.
The Public Service Commissioner had assisted in drafting the letter.
Mitchell has staked his own job on succeeding in making the streets safer after criticising Labour for crime rates under its watch.
“I want people to feel safe on their streets, in their homes, and in their workplaces.
“I expect Police will use the powers provided to them in legislation to ensure gangs will not take over towns, public roads, or spaces. Law-abiding members of the public are entitled to have their rights to safety and freedoms protected.”
Because the police commissioner is a statutorily appointed official under the Policing Act 2008, a minister cannot sack a commissioner, although it is possible for such a role to be removed in cases of incompetence or failing to meet the duties on them. Police Commissioners are appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
Under the Policing Act, the commissioner is responsible to the minister for carrying out the functions of police, the general conduct of the police, effective, efficient, and economical management, tendering advice and giving effect to lawful directions.
However, they must act independently when it comes to law enforcement, maintaining law and order, investigating and prosecuting offences, and decisions around police employees.