Simon Bridges, Andrew Coster clash in dramatic face-to-face gang numbers showdown

National's Simon Bridges clashed with the Police Commissioner on Thursday morning, just days after the former party leader called Andrew Coster a "wokester".

Bridges, National's Justice spokesperson, last week criticised Coster as taking a "softly, softly approach" after the commissioner said police cannot "arrest their way" out of New Zealand's gang problem and should take a more nuanced approach.

The Tauranga MP on Tuesday stood by his comments, but party leader Judith Collins later said she had told Bridges to direct his criticism at the minister, not the commissioner. 

However, Bridges kept up the pressure on Thursday, clashing with Coster at a fiery Justice Select Committee meeting. 

Addressing a question about the national gang list numbers ballooning to 7800 from 5300 when Labour took office in October 2017, Coster said police were "really concerned" about the impact of gangs on organised crime. 

However, he said the figures didn't paint a full picture.

"The question of whether gang numbers have increased is a very hard one to answer with confidence," Coster said. "We developed a measure, the national gang list, in order to understand for intelligence purposes whether someone has had a gang connection."

"It is easy to get on the list - we see a gang member wearing a patch - it is very hard to get off the list because if you drift away from gangs we have no way of knowing."

Bridges then jumped in, asking the commissioner whether he accepted a few older gang members coming off the list "doesn't remotely make up for the thousands that are going on". 

Coster began responding by talking about the newly launched Operation Tauwhiro, an attempt to crackdown on illegal firearms held by organised crime groups. 

But Bridges interrupted, asking the commissioner to answer his question. 

"We have launched this operation because we are concerned about gang activity...Can I answer your question?," Coster replied as the National MP again butted in. 

Coster ended up telling MPs that police had "no confidence about the total number of active gang members". He acknowledged gang activity appeared to be rising.

"I can't with confidence tell you what has happened with gang numbers. On the face of it, gang numbers have increased, however, the statistics we have for that are very problematic."

Bridges and Coster continued to spar throughout the meeting, with the MP at one point asking the commissioner whether police "still arrest criminals in New Zealand?"

Coster replied: "Last year we seized more firearms, we recovered and restrained more assets from organised crime and we laid more charges for dealing, importation and the manufacture of methamphetamine and other drugs than we did in the year before even with the disruption of COVID."

He said it had never been a principle that police "must arrest and prosecute for every offence".

"We need to make sure our response is appropriate and it is."

Bridges said Coster was speaking "a different language" and asked that the commissioner be as firm with gang members as he was with the Select Committee members.