If the success of a police operation was measured in press releases, Operation Cobalt would get top marks.
Barely a week goes by without Police media issuing a story featuring Cobalt. And who can blame them. The work of Police’s gang disruption unit has all the elements of front-page crime news – guns, drugs, high-end vehicles, bundles of cash and multiple arrests – and the stories come from around the motu.
Cobalt kicked off in June last year after a spike in intimidating behaviour and violence by gangs. It was the successor to Operation Tauwhiro, which focused on stripping gangs of unlawful firearms.
The intel gathered in Tauwhiro laid the groundwork that allowed Cobalt to take the operation to the next level. It focuses on enforcement and disrupting unlawful gang behaviour, of which it seems there is no shortage.
In the past year, hundreds of firearms have been seized, thousands of charges laid in court, hundreds of search warrants have been executed, and there has been widespread confiscation of commercial quantities of drugs and large sums of cash.
While the big-ticket numbers claim the media spotlight, it is the work behind the scenes that Cobalt’s national controller, Detective Superintendent Uraia Vakaruru, is also keen to highlight, “the stuff we don’t get to see on the 6pm news”.
Up to 200 staff are assigned to Cobaltrelated work over the 12 Police districts, assisted by a “whole-of-policing” approach, with non-traditional groups such as road policing in the mix as well.
The rolling successes are the result of hard work and significant sacrifices by staff across teams, he says, managing the risks involved and working long hours. “Our people are toiling away to ensure that the tasks they have been assigned are done professionally, and in their dealings with individual gang members and groups.” In fact, he says, the work they do is quite simply “awesome”.
He concedes everyone is learning along the way, but it’s clear there are some key strategies, notably the importance of good intel and the accuracy of NIA notings on gangs and individuals.
“Are they a patched member, a prospect or a hanger-on/associate? It all adds to the intel picture of gang numbers and helps build search warrants.”
And the Criminal Activity Intervention Legislation Act (CAIL) introduced in April has already proved its worth, most recently at the high-profile Mongrel Mob Barbarians tangi in Eastern Bay of Plenty, which was attended by about 400 gang members and patrolled by 100 additional police officers.
CAIL gives police the power to stop and search vehicles and addresses known to be owned by, or linked to, gangs if an officer has reasonable grounds to believe there is ongoing conflict and criminal activity in a certain area. In Ōpōtiki last month, CAIL was used twice over five days resulting in the seizure of 26 vehicles, four firearms and 11 offensive weapons, and nine arrests. “What it has allowed police to do is reinforce that unlawful gang activity has no place in communities,” Uraia says. “We have been really clear, not just in our actions in terms of enforcement, but with some of the conversations we have with key gang members about expectations, whether it’s at a tangi, or generally.”
In the past year, under the banner of Cobalt, about 40,000 charges have been laid, including possession of illegal firearms and drugs, assault and serious assault and justice breaches. Up to 400 firearms have been seized and police have executed more than 1100 search warrants and 700 warrantless searches.
There have been 50,000 infringements under the Land Transport Act, ranging from no WOF, the wrong class of licence to an expired WOF and/or registration.
So what effect is all this extra pressure having on the gangs? Do they really care about traffic penalties, and don’t they revel in the publicity generated by mass gang displays?
Uraia is quietly confident that a zerotolerance approach towards unlawful behaviour is having an impact. In fact, he says, if what has been reported anecdotally in Eastern District is any guide, “they don’t want that kind of publicity for their individuals or their group”.
“Many gang leaders don’t have the same enthusiasm for playing up to the cameras as younger members do. As long as we keep the pressure on in terms of this kind of behaviour, the leaders of those groups will eventually get their members back in line and performing how society expects.
“I think what will naturally occur is that there will be fewer of these types of events.” He notes, in regard to traffic offences, if a gang member’s car or a prized motorbike is taken off them, it sinks in. “That information gets around the club. If a gang member loses his bike, that’s not so great for his reputation.”
So, one year on, can the effect of Cobalt be quantified?
“If we are just looking at the numbers, yes, but it’s also a win in terms of public trust and confidence,” Uraia says. “As long as we are being seen out there, enforcing what we need to when we need to, and providing some good stories, that will be the indicator of how we are tracking.”
In its current form, Cobalt is set to run until February 2024 and will then be incorporated into BAU for Police.
Uraia takes the long view when it comes to dealing with gangs. “I’m a veteran of 30-odd years and I’ve seen many styles of policing over that time. Enforcement will always be there, and traditionally that has been the case in the gang space, but now we are using a mix of what we’ve learnt and the direction that NZ Police is going in, ensuring that other police groups, such as road and community police, are leaning in to assist where they can.”
He points to the pilot project, Resilience to Organised Crime in Communities (ROCC), set up in the past year in two districts, which runs alongside policing enforcement initiatives and offers gang whānau the opportunity for referrals for addictions and to other social agencies.
The growth of gangs and their influence are complex issues, Uraia says, and not just police issues. “Why young men get into gangs is more of a whole-of-government matter. Police is doing its part, and it’s just one aspect of policing. Other areas are just as important.”
Meanwhile, Operation Cobalt appears to have set the standard for applying zero-tolerance enforcement in response to unlawful gang activity.