Gang announcement fizzer

This week’s big announcement about the police’s national gang unit to target gang offending was strong on rhetoric but hazy on details.

Pre-Budget, Police Minister Mark Mitchell and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster could not tell us yet how much it will cost. Even the number of police and which districts might have gang disruption units is unclear.

The hope is the units, eventually aided by the measures in the Gangs Legislation Amendment Bill wending its way through the parliamentary process, will reduce gang numbers, estimated at around 9000. However, targets have not been set for such a reduction.

There was fudginess around how the success or otherwise of the new approach will be measured, Mr Coster saying the police would be able to see any reduction in crime within communities.

Mr Mitchell, full of bluster about ending white-flag-waving towards gangs, was not specific either, pointing to the government’s broader target to have 20,000 fewer victims of assault, robbery or sexual assault by 2029.

The lack of a particular gangs target seems an odd omission for a government so keen on key performance indicators (KPIs) and which has been monotonously hammering its tough on crime mantra for months.

It was not a good look for the initiative that it has not received a ringing endorsement from the Police Association.

Association president Chris Cahill told The New Zealand Herald without more information on the budget and where staff would come from, the proposal appeared to simply increase the workload for the already stretched force.

He is among those who are questioning what policing might go by the wayside in this push against gangs.

It would have made sense to have the association on board before making the announcement.

Mr Mitchell talks up how effective anti-gang measures have been in Australia, but the evidence seems patchy at best.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo: Getty Images
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo: Getty Images
In its detailed submission on the Gangs Legislation Amendment Bill, the New Zealand Law Society says that the evidence regarding the effectiveness ofthe Australian laws was lacking in both quality and quantity.

It was evident, however, crime statistics had not decreased, and reports of misuse of the laws were high.

"This indicates that the intended improvement in public safety through the targeting of gangs has not been achieved," its submission said.

The Bill, which is before the justice select committee, will make it an offence to display gang insignia in public places (but excluding the internet), create a new dispersal power in public places and a new no-consorting order, and make gang membership an aggravating factor at sentencing.

Many questions have already arisen about how easy it might be to implement these measures and whether the infringement of rights can be justified.

It might be easier to be more sympathetic to the government’s gang measures if they were part of a comprehensive suite of policies aimed at stopping people from entering gangs in the first place.

But we see no evidence of that either. The suggestion "social investment" will save the day is not convincing. We still have no real information about how that might work.

As the 2023 report issued by the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Prof Dame Juliet Gerrard, titled Toward an understanding of Aotearoa New Zealand’s adult gang environment, said, reducing gang harm would require addressing underlying societal issues, including inequity, intergenerational trauma, housing and family violence.

She said a public health approach did not come at the expense of enforcement, but "we can’t and won’t arrest ourselves out of the ‘gang problem"’.

The report writers’ hope was that the evidence it provided might support policymakers to move past the tough-on-crime versus soft-on-crime rhetoric, to focus instead on being smart on crime, protecting communities from harm and providing real and lasting change.

We have a long way to go.