'People are fearful': New Zealand police admit gang violence is out of control

Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington
Photograph: Xavier la Canna/AAP

In a part of New Zealand where escalating tension between gangs has erupted into violence, police say the matter is well beyond them to solve – and community advocates are urging the government to do more to tackle the poverty and unemployment they say are fuelling the problem.

Officers in Hawkes Bay, a region on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, are to be armed – police do not routinely carry guns in New Zealand – and have a more visible presence, with officers brought in from other areas, after shots were fired during a gang brawl in Taradale, Napier, on Sunday.

A 25-year-old man injured in the brawl was due to appear in court on Wednesday and police said more arrests were likely. Another shooting took place further north on Saturday, near the town of Ruatoria in the Bay of Plenty. Police said it was also gang-related.

The number of gang members in Hawkes Bay has increased by 30% to 35% in the past two or three years, according to police. Officers said on Wednesday they had arrested more gang members for unlawfully carrying weapons, including in an episode where members had “converged” on the Hawkes Bay town of Wairoa.

“There is a growing number of younger gang members and the older hierarchy can’t control the young cohort the way they used to,” the eastern district commander, Supt Tania Kura, said. Officers’ ability to control the proliferation was “well beyond police”. Hawkes Bay had a specific policing unit but that was “not a silver bullet”, Kura said.

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Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch who studies gangs, said it was “not the first time” New Zealand’s police had said they were unable to solve the problem alone.

“The police do very well at the ability to control incidents of gang violence, but they can’t rid us of gangs,” he said. “That’s going to require social and economic policies – it’s not just about law and order – and the quicker the politicians understand that, the better.”

Gilbert said Hawkes Bay had pockets of extreme deprivation and one of New Zealand’s highest profile gangs, the Mongrel Mob, had originated there “so they tend to have a voice and a very strong presence”. A small area that was home to a rival gang, Black Power, had “always been a bone of contention”.

‘Gangs are not the problem. Poverty, unemployment and inadequate skills are’

Stuart Nash, New Zealand’s police minister, admitted the country had “a gang problem” – due, he said, to the rising tide of methamphetamine in the country. But the government had done plenty to tackle it, including putting “900 more police” on the streets, he said.

“We have confiscated more than $100m of gang assets and we are hoping to introduce laws that will allow us to go even harder on this,” Nash told Newstalk ZB.

Manu Caddie, a businessman and community leader in Ruatoria, where the second shooting of the weekend took place, decried “pretend support” and “populist policies” such as crackdowns as strategies to tackle gangs.

“Governments need to address these issues with practical, sustained and community-led support,” he said. “Gangs are not the problem. Poverty, unemployment and inadequate skills are.”

Caddie said he worried the matter would be sensationalised in an election year. The issue of gangs has already proved a favoured topic for New Zealand’s centre-right opposition party, National, which has promised that if it comes to power, it will ban gang patches, create a special police unit to target gangs, and revoke parole for those associated with the groups.

In Saturday’s street brawl in Taradale, Stuff reported that residents “ducked for cover in shops and cafes” as shots rang out – one hitting a child’s car seat. The child was unharmed.

“We don’t know why they happened. It could be drugs, could be tit for tat, it’s stuff we will never know,” Kura said. It would be “horrendous” if a child was hurt.

Henare O’Keefe, a long-time community worker in Flaxmere, a township near Taradale, said that in the short term, “the full brunt of the law” should be brought to bear on those responsible, while in the long term, examining children’s home environments would be crucial to solving the problem.

“People are fearful, they’re angry, they’ve had enough, they’re sick of it, and understandably so,” he said. “If [the shot] was left or right by a millimetre or so, a life could have been taken.”

Police said they would hold a public meeting on Sunday “to speak with the community about the ongoing gang-related issues and wider community safety concerns”.

Gilbert said New Zealand’s street gangs were unique in that they wore patched jackets identifying themselves in public – which was usually the province of motorcycle gang members in other countries. “What that means is that it gives our gangs a prominence, a real presence – they’re very, very visible.”