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