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In their faces

While the Government was busy last month tweaking laws and Police policies to "tackle gangs and intimidating behaviour", it was business as usual for the country's frontline officers who work in close quarters to gang culture.

Police deal with gangs every day – attending family harm callouts, the aftermath of drive-by shootings, investigating and busting entrenched organised crime groups and helping the victims of meth.

They are the first to be called, and the first line of defence between the public and increasingly emboldened gang members.

They deal with the perpetrators and the victims. They see young people in poor circumstances lured into gang life. They feel the frustration of the rise in gang numbers.

They want to see change as much as, maybe more than, anyone else.

As the people who see the problems of gang violence, intimidation and disruption close up, our members have a range of views about what should or could be done, informed by their experiences.

Constables, detectives, sergeants and senior sergeants from Auckland, Tauranga, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Whanganui, Wellington, Canterbury and Dunedin have shared their reactions with Police News.

Although many welcome the intent of the Government measures (see sidebar), they are keen to see the details of the legislative changes. Some worry they either won’t go far enough, and will need more resourcing, or will be let down when it comes to sentencing in the courts.

They are worried that as Police struggles to keep up with attrition, there won’t be enough staff to make use of the new powers.

Some would also like the interventions extended to a ban on gang patches, which they say solidify gang influence on communities and contribute to intimidation.

They concur with Police Minister Chris Hipkins’ pledge to “hit gangs … where it hurts”, with one member saying consequences for offending need to be “swift, severe and certain”, but “currently we fail on all three”.

Most are cynical about the proposed five-year prison term for a new offence of discharging a gun with intent to intimidate.

“What thinking person believes that five years for shooting up a residential dwelling is tough?” asks a sergeant from Canterbury. “The shooter has no idea if there are kids sleeping in any of the targeted rooms or not. It’s pathetic.”

A sergeant from Christchurch fears that only “weakish” laws will be introduced, which will limit the effectiveness of new tools.

Many responses sent to Police News are tinged with cynicism and the anger that comes from frustration – with the gangs and with the justice sector.

Police have repeatedly (for years) located firearms in gang members’ homes and in their vehicles and possession and appropriately charged them with these offences, but the justice system time and time again fails to appropriately sentence them.

The new laws should be written to ensure the courts cannot apply rulings limiting the intent of why the legislation is being implemented.

I don’t see how someone can join a gang (which by definition is against society) and then expect the same protections as everyone else in that society. Some type of ‘anti-gang order’, where a gang member is told that while they are in the gang they can expect to be stopped, searched and questioned wherever they are would have a calming effect on their behaviour.

Members says gang activities are “abhorrent” at all times, not just when a turf war is happening.

The gangs are ‘criminal gangs’ and should be treated as such. They are doing it to make money, lots of money. They are driving around in Range Rovers, Mercs, and riding expensive custom motorcycles. It sounds like greedy capitalism to me.

Our members also recognise the nuances and drivers of the how gangs develop and exist within New Zealand society.

The biggest losers when it comes to gang life are Māori and, of those, the women and children.

The measures to reduce gang influence in groups where being a member is a ‘family obligation’ (ie, people born into a gang) are different from those who choose to join a gang because of an attraction to the lifestyle. And then there are the gangs that are essentially our ‘organised crime groups’ and require a different set of measures.

Gangs are a system that point to deficiencies in society. Fix the deficits and the gangs will disappear. Healthy families produce valuable contributors to society who don’t join gangs. Where the exceptions occur, the courts respond accordingly.

Stopping young, disaffected males being drawn to gangs by the image of excitement, money and lots of mates, is going to be far more difficult than throwing out a few after-school programmes and encouraging them to play rugby league.

The bottom line for this officer, however, is: “Everyone knows it will only work if the gangs are ruthlessly crushed financially and with policing via rules that tip the scales entirely on the side of law enforcement in
New Zealand.”

PROPOSED CHANGES

  • New targeted warrant and additional search powers to find and seize weapons from gang members during a gang conflict
  • Expanding the range of offences where police can seize and impound cars, motorbikes and other vehicles
  • Up to five years’ prison for a new offence of discharging a gun with intent to intimidate
  • Police and other enforcement agencies able to seize cash amounts over $10,000 when found in suspicious circumstances
  • Watches, jewellery, precious metals and stones, motor vehicles and boats added to list of high-value goods prohibited for sale for cash over a specified value
  • Work under way to strengthen sector-wide approach to address youth crime and reduce offending

Police Minister Chris Hipkins and Justice Minister Kiri Allan presented the package last month as “practical and targeted” measures in response to a Police request for legislative changes to combat violent offender and other criminal activity.

Minister Hipkins said the intention was also to up the ante on intervention and prevention measures focused on steering young people away from a life with organised criminal groups.

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