In at the deep end
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To say Coster was thrown in at the deep end is an understatement. He was appointed to the job on March 9 when the Covid-19 virus was only just starting to concern governments.
But by the time he took over on April 3, New Zealand was in level 4 lockdown, and police had unprecedented power to control people’s behaviour and movements.
Asked how he coped with this abrupt shift into crisis leadership, Coster responds: “Police always shine in situations like these.” It was a privilege to step in, in the midst of the crisis, and police were doing an “awesome job”.
They were having to adapt to a different way of working, “but it felt like a pretty seamless transition to me”.
He says his leadership style is “open, consultative and inclusive”, and he is working hard to create a Police environment which values “team delivery over individual stardom” and which makes it “safe for people to challenge”.
He feels this sort of cooperative effort is happening in the Covid-19 situation.
His main message to the troops at this point is: “Let’s be the police service that New Zealanders need us to be.” He believes in policing by consent. “We need the vast majority of the public to support us and see what we do as legitimate, so the way we go about our business is fundamentally important.”
Current circumstances are extraordinary and nothing will be particularly normal for some time, and New Zealanders need a “calm, compassionate and confident approach” from police. “I think that has resonated with the public and I think we’ve delivered it.”
Coster’s original goals for his time as commissioner have not changed because of the crisis. “They are more resilient than any particular situation, but the way we deliver them will be different.”
His long-held vision is for New Zealand to be “the safest country”. Three priorities underpin that, the first being, “Be first, then do”. Police is an action-oriented organisation, which is its strength. But sometimes that “leap to doing” means police neglect who they are and how they treat each other, he says.
Paying more attention to creating a good environment within the police service, developing its “inner strength”, will allow it to do a better job when engaging with the outside world.
The second priority is “delivering the police service New Zealanders deserve.” This is about what Kiwis expect from police and how they want it delivered. That will include doing the basics well, Coster says.
His third priority is “prevention through partnership”. Some police activities can make a difference to crime prevention but police cannot solve every problem, and that’s when they need to lean on partners. These partners include government ministries and community organisations.
“Prevention First” remains the Police operational model, Coster says, but prevention includes crimefighting and there always has to be a balance between response, investigation and prevention. This involves judgment calls which sometimes might mean solving a string of burglaries, and in other circumstances might involve community work to get young people occupied in a better way.
Coster was born in Dunedin but grew up in Auckland, and spent the first seven years of his police career at Counties Manukau. He has worked as a constable, a detective and in Police management, serving as commander in Auckland Central, the smallest most densely populated district, and in the Southern district, the largest and most sparsely populated. “The variety you get in policing is one of the best things about the job,” he says.
On a subject of major interest to Police News readers, new commissioner Andy Coster is “open to a conversation” about new headwear for officers.
He says he has no strong personal view on what it should be, but whatever was decided on needed to “balance practicality with professionalism”.
A baseball-style cap, designed last year by Senior Constable Mark Taylor, drew a lot of support from members when it featured in Police News.