Police Association moving to Expose New Zealand's "underbelly"
The theme of this year’s New Zealand Police Association Conference, held in Wellington from 14 to 16 October, was: “Policing New Zealand’s Underbelly.”
The theme was chosen to highlight the rapidly growing threat posed by sophisticated, internationally linked organised crime networks in New Zealand. Concerned at the risks posed not only to New Zealand society, but also directly to members through the corruption potential of unchecked organised crime, the Police Association has been pushing for action.
The threat had earlier been identified by Association members, through the Members’ Survey conducted by Nielsen and completed by more than 5,500 serving Police employees, as the “most significant threat to law and order emerging in New Zealand”.
A massive forty-one percent (41%) identified gangs, organised crime, and/or the gang-controlled methamphetamine and drugs trade as the most significant threat.
Concern amongst CIB staff was even higher (50%). These numbers far outstripped the next biggest concerns, which were the effectiveness of the courts and justice system (12%), and increasing violence (6%).
At the end of last year, frustration at the lack of official efforts to understand the true nature of New Zealand’s organised crime problem led the Police Association to begin its own investigation.
Keynote speaker Detective Inspector Bernie Edwards, head of Victoria Police’s Purana Taskforce, was invited to address the conference because the Police Association’s investigation showed New Zealand is rapidly approaching the alarming levels of organised crime in Australia.
Public concern still tends to focus on traditional patched gangs and the violence and intimidation they inflict on the community.
The Police Association’s investigation showed these are largely yesterday’s issues. New Zealand now has a true organised crime problem. The ‘traditional’ gangs are merely one part of complex organised crime networks involving overseas crime groups, apparently ‘legitimate’ businesses and businessmen, and multiple inter-linked holding companies and trusts.
An army of professional directors and expert advisers, including the best lawyers, accountants, and financial advisors that money can buy, support these networks.
Organised crime has evolved beyond the traditional gang structure. The gangs are no longer at the top of the organised crime tree, instead being used by organised crime networks mainly as distribution mechanisms, and as ‘muscle’ for the more easily detectable criminal acts such as stand-overs and violent debt enforcement.
Widespread criminal activity
Wealth is generated not only from drugs but also from crimes like large-scale organised fraud and identity theft, and criminality affecting a wide range of industries and sectors including fisheries, forestry, property development, banking and finance.
The following are extracts from Police Association President Greg O’Connor’s opening remarks to the conference.
“The breadth of expertise and experience our membership brings to the Association, matched with our network of offshore contacts, means the Police Association is uniquely placed to recognise emerging crime trends long before they are officially acknowledged or come to dominate the public consciousness.
I believe we are obligated to give New Zealand the benefit of that intelligence, even though others do not always want to listen. If I can take a moment to present our credentials.
In September 2006, the Police Association raised a red flag over the lack of resources available to investigate child abuse.
We highlighted the Wairarapa problems but warned it was a nationwide issue.
Now, three years later, Police are struggling to deal with the consequences through Operation Hope and the Independent Police Conduct Authority has launched a major investigation into lack of action in this area.
In May 2004, the Association released alarming findings from our own investigation into the pressures facing Comms Centres.
We predicted that if urgent action was not taken, tragedy would result.
It took the disappearance of Iraena Asher, nearly six months later, before Police admitted the problems and asked Government for more than $45 million to fix them.
From as early as 1997, the Police Association warned about the rising threat of methamphetamine.
We showed the alarming move of the established gangs to organise and professionalise to trade ‘P’.
We predicted what would happen to crime, violence, and society when ‘P’ took hold.
We were largely ignored, and ‘P’ was dismissed by the Police administration of the day as nothing more than “PR for the Police Association”.
Unfortunately, the political masters of the day accepted those official assurances.
It wasn’t until more than five years later that Police and Government slowly started to appreciate the problem, and belatedly take action.
We’re now reaping the consequences of that delay.
Organised crime has been a popular theme on New Zealand television screens recently, with many viewers glued to three series of the Australian drama ‘Underbelly’.
The first series touched on the New Zealand connection in the Mr Asia story – events nearly 30 years old – but other than that,this has been engaging drama about the big bad world of organised crime “overseas”.
Few New Zealanders – including many police – want to acknowledge that we have our own ‘Underbelly’ alive and well here in New Zealand.
The penetration of organised crime into New Zealand society, at all levels, is frightening.
It’s no longer just about traditional patched gangs. It’s not even just about methamphetamine anymore. ‘P’ was the number one issue 10 years ago.
But organised crime today is very much more than ‘P’.
Police estimate the ‘P’ trade is worth $1.5 billion a year. The money available from ‘P’ has driven the old gangs to get smart, to get professional, and to organise. It’s big business, and has been a massive source of investment capital for criminal enterprise.
The trade has driven them to link up with ‘businessmen’ in New Zealand and overseas.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been laundered offshore and moved into apparently legitimate front businesses.
Divisions between the serious gangs, like the Head Hunters and Hells Angels, have been erased when it comes to business and the line between the underworld and high society has, in many places, blurred beyond recognition.
While New Zealanders continue to equate ‘organised crime’ with anti-social outcasts on noisy motorbikes, our real organised criminals are doing international business not just with the best organised, and most dangerous, crime groups in the world – they are also doing business with ‘respectable’ citizens who could be our neighbours,
friends, or family members.
It’s not that Police are ineffective. On the contrary, New Zealand Police are as good as anyone in the world, if not better. Police are more than busy enough solving homicides, rapes and robberies, and picking up burglars, drug dealers and other criminals along the way.
A good number of them are gang members. Just look at our jails – they are full of them, to the point where the gangs effectively run New Zealand prisons.
But the reality is, it is mostly low-hanging fruit. Nobody is going higher or attacking the problem from the top.
It’s no one’s job to go looking for yet another problem to have to deal with.
Everywhere in the world where organised crime takes hold, corruption goes hand in hand with it. Organised crime controls such wealth, that if we do not act to protect our members, it is unfortunately inevitable that, sooner or later, we too will face a major corruption scandal, as so many Police services overseas have.
The first step in dealing with this threat is to acknowledge and understand the serious problem this country faces.
Since 2003, the Police Association has been calling for a Commission of Inquiry into organised crime.
We were concerned that Police and Government did not know enough about the problem to target it effectively.
At the end of last year, we got sick of waiting and conducted our own inquiry into organised crime. Even with the limited resources we could commit, what we have uncovered is frightening.
New Zealand’s organised crime problem already shares many of the same chilling characteristics uncovered by Victoria Police’s Purana Taskforce.
We shouldn’t be surprised – every global trend makes its way to New Zealand eventually. If anything, we should be surprised it has taken so long.
We cannot afford to give organised crime another two to three years’ head start. It’s now time for action.”