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Parliament’s Justice Select Committee has finished hearing submissions on the highly publicised Gangs Legislation Amendment Bill. It aims to prohibit the wearing of gang patches in public places and restrict gangs from congregating in public, and it introduces gang non-association orders.

I presented the association’s position on the legislation last month. I believe most members support the intent of the bill because, in simple terms, it aims to make gang life less attractive and reduce the ability of gangs to intimidate the public.

If passed in its current form, the interpretation and implementation of this law will not be easy for members to apply in real life, out on the streets of Aotearoa. Indeed, at first blush, some of it presents as unworkable, but that does not mean the intent lacks merit.

As police, we see the harm gangs inflict on communities daily, particularly drug harm and senseless violent offending that make people feel unsafe. This cycle shows no sign of abating. Since 2017, Police has recorded a 92% growth in gang membership and we now have some Police districts with more gang members than police officers.

A change in approach is necessary.

Young men join gangs for many reasons so if we are going to stem this decades-long reality, we need to address some of the basic reasons behind their disenfranchisement, their absence from the education system and their lack of a sense of purpose. What is required is a carrot-andstick approach, and this legislation is part of the stick. But it’s a lot easier said than done.

I told the select committee that New Zealanders cannot expect officers to arrest every patch-wearing gang member they encounter. The reality is, deciding to charge a gang member for wearing their patch will likely have to be linked to other offending behaviour. Equally, how and when dispersal notices and non-association orders are used will need to be robustly supported by sound policy.

I am really concerned about potential claims of “postcode policing”, whereby police in parts of the country may face accusations of discrimination. This legislation may feed that belief for the simple reason that different communities have different perceptions of, and issues with, gangs and gang behaviours they witness and consequently of the approach police take in controlling gangs. Too soft in some communities; too harsh in others. This needs to be factored into the implementation of this new legislation.

I explained to the select committee that these new offences amount to extra tools in an officer’s toolbox, and, as with any new tools, they need to be used the right way at the right time. I believe officers will identify how best to use these new laws and the courts will apply their determination so that, in time, we will understand the capacity of this legislation to meet its intended outcomes.

Amid all this change, the consistent element remains – our officers. They are who we must trust to implement the new laws fairly and efficiently and I know they will be putting in the hard mahi to protect Aotearoa from a situation that definitely requires reining in.

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