Keep both eyes open on gangs

The police have been busy in recent weeks dealing with an increase in gang-related violence and disorder.

Be concerned, but don’t be alarmed.

It’s a call for calm and perspective from a Canterbury academic after Tauranga was rocked by a double-fatal shooting, a running gun battle ending in a fatal police shooting and another death believed to be a domestic incident being investigated as a homicide.

Sociologist, Dr Jarrod Gilbert isn’t even sure if the violence is part of battles between the “one percenters” – bikers who are outlaws. But he says it certainly adds to the mix and the public perception.

“It’s always serious and unnerving when bullets are flying,” says Dr Gilbert. He immersed himself in gang culture for his PhD thesis and authored the authoritative “Patched: The History of gangs In New Zealand”.

Then he likened gangs going into battle to a rugby match. “The people on the field will get injured, but it's pretty rare the ball flies into the grandstand and hurts an innocent bystander.”

That’s not to say there aren't things that need to be done, strong action taken. “But we make our best decisions when we're calm. That’s a bit easy to say, because the community will feel how it feels, but we need to keep it in perspective.”

For example, he points to a four-year-old boy who he says was “beaten half to death, and in Starship hospital with serious brain injuries.”

So, says Dr Gilbert, the problems gangs create are not even a small percentage of the much bigger issues facing New Zealand in the criminal justice realm. “They make great copy and great headlines and are a problem, but there is a perspective that is required.” That might sound rich coming from academic, says Dr Gilbert, because there are people who have concerns and he doesn’t want to diminish those concerns.

Dr Gilbert says New Zealand has had gangs firing guns around the place as long as gangs have existed. “It’s a return to violence that was once far more common. We have been through a period of relative calm, in relative terms, probably through the first decade of the millennium.”

But we’re now seeing a reaction to the growth in gangs. “When new gangs emerge, or existing gangs expand into other gang territory, then violence is inevitable. That's a reality of gang dynamics.”

Dr Gilbert says the response to gangs often comes only after incidents like the Tauranga experience. “And we get sensational speeches from the hustings.

“In fact, gang laws and political gang interventions have traditionally been very poor and demonstrably fail because we don't do it with sober minds. We tend to talk when we're het up, and leave it to rhetorical flourishes rather than an evidence lead approach.”

He says you'd think gang activity spiked every three years with the elections, when politicians turn their attention toward it.

“National is speaking of crushing the gangs – well you don't have to go back too far when Labour was saying exactly the same thing. It doesn't tend to be a left and right issue. It tends to be a government and opposition issue. We tend to get the rhetoric from opposition benches, and of course the government is forced to respond.”

The trend can be traced back to 1972 when the opposition’s Norman Kirk promised to take bikes off the bikies, and so politicised the gangs. It’s been like that ever since.

“While we need strong action against the gangs, we can't just see it as a law and order issue. It is social and economic as well. Because if we rely solely on the police to solve these problems, we will be having this conversation again. We will miss a trick by having one eye closed.”

And he says we need to start to look over the medium and longer terms at the chronic issue, not the acute issue. “And to do that, we need to find answers to why people are joining gangs, because unless we find alternatives for them, gangs will endure.”

While it’s Tauranga’s issue today, it won’t be like that forever. “The gang issues are in fact, being faced around the country.”