In New Zealand, Maori Wardens Take a Different Approach to Crime

As tempers flared on a recent evening in a nightlife district in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, Joanne Paikea sensed an altercation — or even an arrest — brewing.

“Bro, you know the cops are behind us,” she said, describing her efforts to soothe the surging tension between two groups. “So you’re either going to listen, or get arrested. It’s your choice. What do you want? To go home and have a feed, or get in the cells?”

Ms. Paikea is a Maori Warden, one of about 1,000 Indigenous volunteers across New Zealand who minister to the vulnerable, calm the vexed and occasionally intervene with the violent, working independently of — but in tandem with — the police.

The role of policing has recently come under the microscope in New Zealand, where lurid crime stories have dominated headlines. Shootings, gang tensions and scores of ram raids — when miscreants smash into stores with cars to loot them — have rattled the peaceful nation and became an important issue in last month’s election.

Christopher Luxon, the country’s new prime minister and the leader of the center-right National Party, pitched voters on a new era of tougher sentencing, including vowing to send young offenders to boot camps and to reverse course on efforts to reduce prison populations.

“We will restore law and order,” Mr. Luxon said in his victory speech last month.

Experts have questioned the need for such a shift, as well as the more muscular tactics of Mr. Luxon’s party, saying the underlying issues would remain unresolved. Many Maori Wardens, the majority of whom are women over 40, know them firsthand: economic hardship, alienation, addiction.

In recent months, a cost-of-living crisis has hit New Zealanders hard. Food prices in October rose 6.3 percent year over year, almost twice the rate in the United States.

This has created a black market for some goods. Stolen cigarettes, which retail for about 35 New Zealand dollars (more than $20) a pack, can be traded for other valuable items. “Some people will swap eight packets for a piece of steak,” said Ms. Paikea, who runs the Akarana Maori Wardens Association, in Auckland.

New Zealand’s homicide rate is well below many other wealthy countries. But it has one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration, with a long history of imprisoning people for relatively minor crimes.

Many countries are wrestling with practical and philosophical questions about law enforcement, including the threat of police brutality, the harms of incarceration and the factors that drive offenders. The likes of the Maori Wardens, who have been active in New Zealand for around a century, can present compelling alternatives for managing low-level crime.

“They are in between formal community policing and social workers, and pretty much essential in how certain areas of New Zealand operate,” Fabio Scarpello, a political scientist at the University of Auckland, said.

A few nights a week, Ms. Paikea and other Wardens go on patrol — what they call “roving” — up and down Karangahape Road, a major thoroughfare in Auckland, where early on a recent Sunday morning, beery revelers spilled onto sidewalks and homeless people sat slumped against storefronts.

The Wardens help wherever they can — but conditions on the ground have been changing, Ms. Paikea said, and they have in recent months been asked by the police to wear stab-proof vests for the first time.

“It’s violence, ram raids, stabbings, robbing,” she said, adding: “Our youth are playing up, big time. We can only do so much.”

The Maori Wardens say they favor respect and compassion over more forceful coercion, and the National Party has made no suggestion that their role will change. But many voters backed the incoming government’s more punitive approach to crime.

“The offenders appear to have no fear of police, no fear of being caught, no fear of law or any consequences whatsoever,” said Sunny Kaushal, the chairman of the Dairy and Business Owners Group, which represents owner-operated small businesses. “Hard-working people, the shop owners, have lost their faith in the police and the justice system.”

Strategies introduced by the previous government, including making a new criminal offense for ram raids, and subsidizing fog cannons to blind possible offenders, had been inadequate, he said.

Mr. Luxon’s government has vowed to address what party leaders described as a “crisis” across the criminal justice system by introducing harsher sentences for offenders, as well as criminalizing street gang gatherings and the public wearing of insignia.

New Zealand has a particularly high rate of gang membership. Many members are Maori or Pacific Islanders who suffer from urban poverty. While experts say not all gangs, nor all chapters of those gangs, are necessarily criminal, they are often perceived as linked to profit-driven crime, particularly the sale of drugs like methamphetamine.

Many voters see government efforts to cooperate with or work alongside gangs as a waste of their tax dollars. But the Wardens have access that formal law enforcement may not, and Ms. Paikea said they had at times acted as formal security at the sometimes fractious funerals of gang members, where their mana — a Maori word meaning personal power or authority — guarantees respect.

“We want people to feel at ease with us,” said Garnet Wetini Weston-Matehaere, a Warden. “Our magic tool is our mouths.”

The Wardens’ diverse backgrounds, they say, give them insight. Ms. Paikea, who now works in environmental health, was for years at the margins of society, living in her car and falling afoul of law enforcement. Mr. Weston-Matehaere, a retiree, once worked as a police officer and as a prison warden. Others survive on a disability or unemployment benefits.

The focus is on respect, said Mr. Weston-Matehaere, who described himself as a grandfather many times over.

“All throughout my working years, one of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to be able to help people,” he said. “Every job that I had, I was doing exactly the opposite. Being a Maori Warden opened my eyes and gave me what I wanted.”

Mark Mitchell, the new minister of police, has a starkly different philosophy that focuses on holding wrongdoers accountable for their actions.

“As long as humankind has been around, you’ve got bad people that want to do bad things,” said Mr. Mitchell, a former mercenary and police officer.

Experts have questioned that approach, as well as the data that purported to show higher violent crime in general.

“The figures are getting manipulated to suit agendas,” said Ronald Kramer, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Auckland. Without tackling the underlying economic issues, he added, policymakers would not be able to address the problem.

Part of the new government’s strategy to clamp down on offenders includes expanding military-style boot camps for at-risk youth to those as young as 15.

Critics said the camps risked exposing young people to violence, as well as connecting them with other young thrill seekers. “All the research tells us that boot camps don’t work,” said Sara Salman, a criminologist at Victoria University of Wellington. “We don’t want to criminalize young people.”

That ethos was at the heart of why people trusted the Wardens, when they might not the police, Ms. Paikea said.

“They know we’re not there to arrest them,” she said. “We’re just here to help them out.”