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Gangs Gaining The Upper Hand

Gangs Gaining The Upper Hand

Last week's rival gang shooting in the Bay of Plenty reminded New Zealanders of just how dangerous criminal gangs are.

Most people are deeply concerned about the existence of gangs, and worry that - not only are they are a law unto themselves but - since many gang members are on benefits, taxpayers are essentially funding organised crime.

Police have also expressed alarm, saying that they are losing the battle against organised crime throughout the country: "the legacy of this government is going to be the era in which organised crime got out of control".

Answers to my Parliamentary Questions show that there are an estimated 21,000 gang members and affiliates. That means that gang associates outnumber sworn police officers three to one. It has further been estimated that up to 80 percent of all crime is gang-related.

Police say one of the major reasons New Zealand's gang problem is now getting out of control is that they are turning their attention from violent crime and traditional turf wars - like that seen last week - to the extremely lucrative business of manufacturing and distributing methamphetamines. Gangs that were once bitter enemies are now forming nationwide links. They are dealing in methamphetamine and - with the new law changes - prostitution, which provides a convenient way to launder drug money as well.

The people of Taneatua called for a crackdown on gangs. With political will, hard policing and some legislative tweaking, it would not be impossible to virtually rid New Zealand of criminal gangs.

The New York Police Department demonstrated how a zero tolerance approach to crime could be successful during the period 1992-2001, when crime plummeted by 65 percent. It was achieved by essentially cracking down on petty crime, repeat offenders, and those creating a public nuisance.

A first step was to increase police numbers to create a visible police presence, especially in crime hotspots. To lift New Zealand to the same level of police as the average in the US, we would need an additional 4,000 officers; 2,500 to match the UK and 1,700 to match Australia.

But more police was only part of the answer. Credit has largely been attributed to the development of a tracking system - Compstat - that displayed neighbourhood crime figures on a daily basis to produce trend data.

As New York's mayor of put it: "if you could count it, you could `Compstat' it". Whether it was arrest information, response times, or gang intelligence, police district management teams were asked to front up twice a week to explain their results - if they were good, they shared how they had achieved them; if they were bad, they explained how they would improve them.

Overall, by having the staff, the resources and the mandate to significantly reduce crime, the city, streets and parks were eventually safe enough to be returned to the people, and New York was transformed from one of the world's most dangerous large cities to one of the safest.

It is long past time to reverse Labour's cuts in the percentage of funding they spend on police, by giving them the personnel, resources and mandate to eliminate gang crime.

In taking a zero tolerance approach, police would first need to enforce the law: the Crimes Act prohibits participation in an organised criminal group, punishable by up to five years in prison. Under the Summary Offences Act, it is an offence to associate with known criminals where it can reasonably be inferred that the association will lead to the criminal activity. These two Acts both prohibit unlawful assembly. The Proceeds of Crimes Act and the Misuse of Drugs Act provide for the confiscation of cash and property that has been obtained through criminal activity.

By properly enforcing these laws, the police could crack down on gangs to the extent that if members of criminal gangs - wearing their colours - gathered together in an intimidating manner, they could risk being arrested. Not only that, but if they were a beneficiary and could not explain how they lawfully obtained the $40,000 needed to buy their Harley Davidson, they could have it confiscated. Under such tough policing, the appeal of being publicly engaged in gang activities would surely wane.

Hand-in-hand with a zero tolerance approach by police should be tougher requirements to benefit entitlement. It irks law-abiding citizens that gang members can receive taxpayer-funded benefits while being engaged in a life of crime.

Benefits for people who are able to work should be based on a 40-hour a week programme of activity designed to increase their employability. That should apply to gang members as well. If they are not prepared to comply with those requirements, then that is their choice and, they should lose their benefit entitlements to become voluntarily unemployed.

While most New Zealanders would welcome a police crackdown on criminal gangs, Labour appears to be more interested in cracking down on motorists who drive just over the speed limit. I think it's time they changed their priorities and adopted a zero tolerance approach to gang crime instead.

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