Jarrod Gilbert: How New Zealand should tackle public gang warfare

OPINION:

After a 14-month break, I’m back writing a column for the Herald at the same time the gangs are firing guns about the place.

In 2013, I wrote that the prospect of increasing gang violence was inevitable. That wasn’t rocket science; the scene was growing and changing and given a bit of elementary knowledge of gang dynamics, gang conflicts were boringly predictable. In a crowded room, someone invariably gets elbowed. And in the gang scene that means loading up the guns.

I may have been a little early in my prediction, but two recent gang shootings have brought attention to the issue. The latest occurred at Auckland’s upmarket Sofitel Hotel where masked men stormed the place firing shots at a rival. The other, which occurred in Napier, got less publicity but was more serious, as two innocent bystanders were injured outside the West Quay bar in a gang drive-by shooting.

The question is: what do we do about it?

The police have a strategy involving gangs and it’s two-pronged. Along with a number of state agencies, they’re tackling organised crime in all forms. The other prong is an attempt to build community resistance to organised crime, by again working with other agencies but also community groups and iwi to dampen both the impacts of crime as well as the impacts that large scale arrests have on communities.

When we think about gangs we tend to only think of the patched members, whereas in reality there are kids, wives and often entire parts of the community — very often Māori communities — that are inextricably tied to these matters as well. And we lose sight of that at our peril.

On paper, I really like the police strategies, they are sophisticated and forward-looking, but for acute problems of public gang warfare, we may need to step things up.

Conflict between gangs rarely occurs without cause, and often leads to tit-for-tat retaliations and an escalation in violence. As has been the case recently, that escalation can endanger the public.

In these instances, police need to respond quickly and surgically to de-escalate matters. What that means is identifying the specific chapters of the gangs involved and blanket-policing them; investigating all matters involving their members and prosecuting even minor crimes, pulling them over at every opportunity, investigating old matters and generally staying on their tails.

This approach is resource-intensive and therefore necessarily short-term, but it has three important effects.

Firstly, the suffocating nature of the policing means attempts at retaliation are made more difficult, allowing a cooling-off period that creates a firebreak in the escalation.

Secondly, it shows the gangs — both those involved and all other groups — that there are very real consequences for such actions and encourages the leadership and senior members to keep their men in line.

And finally, this blanket policing demonstrates public concern and ensures affected communities feel these matters are being taken seriously.

The latter is an important point — the community does need to have faith and confidence in the police, but notwithstanding that we also need to be mindful that we don’t overblow the gang issue.

The gangs make for great media headlines and therefore get disproportionate media and political attention. Yet they are far from being our biggest crime concern. In fact, much of the time they are a distraction, taking our attention away from other far more serious issues.

Take family violence, for just one example, and the fact that on average one in every five weeks a kid is killed in a domestic setting. That is a far bigger issue with immense flow-on effects for the poor wee mites living in those households. For every innocent child that is brutally killed, there are scores who survive only to grow up dysfunctional and angry, often becoming the next generation of offenders.

Yet, we don’t discuss that massive problem nearly as much as we do the gangs. In coming columns I’ll explore many matters such as these, using data and logic as well as discussions I have across the scene, from those leading justice agencies through to crooks running the underworld. I’m really looking forward to it, and I trust you find it valuable.

• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the director of criminal justice at the University of Canterbury and the author of Patched: the History of Gangs in New Zealand

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