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Last month’s announcement of Operation Tauwhiro – the Police crackdown on gangs – has raised the question: Why do we need a special operation to focus on gang firearm-related violence when that should be everyday police work?

On the face of it, that’s a legitimate question. However, the reality is much more nuanced given changes within New Zealand society, including a fast-changing gang landscape.

For a start, for Tauwhiro to be effective it must be resourced, which would indicate other policing requirements will drop down the priority list. Police management faces a real challenge because districts cannot just be expected to add this operation to their already heavy demands.

That said, I applaud the Police initiative, particularly so for its commitment of a solid block of time to disrupt gang criminal activity. This is no “fly in and fly out” political salve. Over six months, police officers will be relentless in a nationally coordinated approach to interrupt gangs and organised crime groups who possess, use and illegally manufacture and modify firearms.

Police data suggests a 30 per cent increase in gang membership over the past three years. Some question the size of the increase claiming that once you are on the gang list it is very difficult to get off. That may be so, but there is no question about the rise in gang visibility and their highly organised and sophisticated criminal offending.

Members who police in provincial towns and cities such as Tauranga, Napier or Nelson know how this visibility manifests itself. It is designed to intimidate, and it does. Residents in these areas should not be expected to just put up with increasing criminal activity threatening their safety or that of their families and businesses.

It is absolutely reasonable for law-abiding Kiwis to expect police to address criminal offending whenever and wherever it occurs, including when it is patched and menacingly close.

It is a truism that in many ways the very presence of gangs represents shortfalls in our wider society. Why do young men, particularly, gravitate towards gangs?

To answer that honestly, we must look at societal drivers including their health, home lives, education and role models – for better or worse. We know school attendance figures are appallingly low, having dropped appreciably in the past 12 months. A lack of education is a no-brainer in terms of limiting expectations and opportunities. Our youth services members see this daily.

New Zealand’s family violence statistics are another danger signal when it comes to negative outcomes for future generations.

Police continue to step up with initiatives to respond to these societal pitfalls – youth offending, family violence and Aotearoa’s mental health crisis. And therein lies a huge chunk of this problem of prioritising police resources.

Arguably by default, these societal challenges are now core Police responsibilities, added to a day-to-day workload that includes violent criminal activity by a growing number of gangs prepared to fight each other for a share of whatever lucrative criminal enterprise they can.

That is why I see benefit in a prolonged and targeted counter-gang operation. Police continues to strip millions of dollars of assets from many gangs, but the unrelenting influence of the bling and flashy vehicles of OMCGs on our traditional ethnic gangs, and young Māori and Pasifika men, continues to grow as the meth trade does.

It is time for an unapologetically blunt disruption and it is in all our interests for Operation Tauwhiro to succeed.

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