About the Author

Avatar photo

Dr Muriel Newman

Beating the Gangs

Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

13 May 2007

Beating the Gangs

In politics, words are cheap. The real test of leadership is action. For years politicians have been talking about getting tough on gangs. But the result of their failure to act can be seen all around in the wasted lives of drug addicts, the thugs who get their kicks from terrorising neighbourhoods, the families who live in fear, and now a drive-by shooting that has left an innocent sleeping two-year-old dead.

It is estimated that there are more than 20,000 gang members and affiliates in New Zealand. They are responsible for most of the country’s serious crime. There is already ample legislation to deal with them. The Crimes Act prohibits participation in an organised criminal group. Under the Summary Offences Act, it is an offence to associate with known criminals. The Proceeds of Crimes Act allows for the confiscation of property obtained through criminal activity. The Misuse of Drugs Act makes drug related activities unlawful.

By properly enforcing these laws, the police could crack down on gangs and arrest patched gang members who gather together and behave in an intimidating manner. Not only that, but any gang member on welfare, who could not explain how he lawfully obtained the money to buy his assets, could have them confiscated.

In spite of that, gang members get away with widespread lawlessness– running drug houses, converting cars, breaching probation and parole, driving unregistered cars, failing to register dangerous dogs, having illegal fortifications on their properties, failing to send their kids to school, involving children in crime, treating welfare as a lifestyle choice with no intention of ever – ever – getting a job.

The Maori Party’s response to the toddler’s killing has been to say that gangs are misunderstood and need funding. NZ First has claimed they are terrorists. The Prime Minister has said that they are thugs and need pulling into line. But isn’t that rather odd coming a leader who has been in charge for almost a decade?

Under Labour’s soft touch, gang activity has been allowed to escalate. Ministers were warned that the methamphetamine trade was set to explode years before it became a problem. But rather than take preventative action, they sat on their hands until it became a massive public concern. By then, of course, it was too late – the gangs had grown strong on the back of a lucrative cash cow meth trade and P had flooded the country.

Wednesday’s Editorial in the Otago Daily Times (this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentary) asks: “It remains to be seen whether the Clark Government has yet learnt that giving in to the soft option school of thought on curbing anti-social behaviour does not work”.

It goes on to state: “This Government, like its predecessors, is failing to combat violent gangs, it is failing to adequately manage law and order in serious criminal offending, and it is failing to make our prisons places to be avoided. No place in this country now seems safe: in 30 years the virus of violent crime has infected every corner of the land. Whole communities are experiencing gang-sponsored criminality unknown for perhaps three or four generations”. (To read the full article click )

So if the Government already has the powers to curtail criminal gangs, why don’t they use them?

The answer can be found in their response to a police initiative that you might recall hearing about. A newly appointed police boss was so committed to reducing crime in his precinct that he adopted a zero tolerance approach to crime. He raided ‘tinny’ houses, arrested drug dealers and closed down local drug operations. He chased and arrested criminals who were breaching parole and bail. He pursued and caught burglars, cracked down on car thefts, and took a hard line on minor crime and disorderly behaviour.

As a result, crime in his district plummeted. But the problem was that his recorded crime statistics went through the roof. This did not please his political masters.

Until Helen Clark gives Police the go-ahead to properly crack down on gang crime, to hasssle them out of existence, taking the resulting escalation in the crime statistics on the chin, the gangs will continue to wreck their havoc on New Zealand society.

Of course it doesn’t have to be like this. In his book Leadership, Rudolph Giuliani explains how he brought crime under control in New York City: “When I ran for Mayor in 1993, I promised to do something about the out-of-control crime rates that were holding the city hostage. I didn’t want to tinker with the Police Department. I wanted to revolutionise it”.

Giuliani re-focused police onto public safety and reducing crime: “getting people to be safe and to feel safe”. He and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton took a two pronged approach. Firstly they adopted a zero tolerance approach to crime, cracking down on small crimes in order to re-establish lawful, civil behaviour in the community and a feeling of safety. And secondly, they began collecting and analysing crime statistics on a daily basis so that crime patterns could be recognised, potential trouble spots identified, and preventative measures introduced.

The results were remarkable: “Eight years later, murders were cut by almost 70percent and overall crime was down by about 65 percent”.

This zero tolerance approach is based on the work of two social scientists, James Wilson of Harvard University and Professor George Kelling of Northeastern University, who had discovered a direct relationship between crime and disorder. They had found that broken windows in deteriorating neighbourhoods where public disorder – graffiti, vandalism, drunkenness – were tolerated were identified by the criminal community as good places to carry out illegal business. This was because residents were unlikely to call the police.

Their research also showed that with serious criminals thinking nothing of committing small crimes, a zero tolerance approach to minor crime would inevitably uncover drug possession, traffic infringements, illegal weapons, outstanding warrants, as well as turning up leads to major crime. (To find out more, read the Heritage Foundation “Getting Backup” by Moffitt and Meese click )

Realistically, however, combating criminal gangs is far more than a policing issue. The real problem starts in the home with the endemic breakdown in family life. Alienated children are attracted to gangs as a surrogate family, with patched members becoming their father figures and role models. The gang gives them a sense of brotherhood that is otherwise absent from their lives. (For more information read: The Real Root Causes of Violent Crime: The Breakdown of Marriage, Family, and Community by Dr Patrick F. Fagan click )

In an article, The Academy of Respect, journalist and author Melanie Phillips looks at an initiative that is successfully preventing British boys from drifting into a life of crime. The Young Leaders’ Academy raises their expectations of what they might achieve, teaching them social skills, introducing discipline, and providing father figures as well as a sense of belonging.

Academy principal Ray Lewis pulls no punches: “I don’t believe in attention deficit disorder. If these boys can concentrate on their play stations they can listen to me for half an hour. Self-esteem? Our boys have got too much self esteem. We need to take this out of them and then we build them up. We love them and we believe in them, which is why I won’t listen to this rubbish” (to read the article click here ).

Mayor Giuliani demonstrated that beating organised crime is not rocket science. But it does need commitment and leadership.

Beating the gangs in New Zealand is a challenge but it is one that can be won with a concerted effort and good leadership. Police will need to be instructed to target organised crime. Welfare services will need to require gang members to work. Schools will need to prosecute parents whose children fail to turn up. Deprived kids will need to be given access to education that will lift their aspirations. Local authorities will need to enforce their by-laws on gang household. Policy changes to reverse New Zealand’s disastrous breakdown in family life will need to be introduced.

The poll this week asks: Do you think the Police should form a special crimes unit dedicated to fighting the gang problem? Take part in poll

Reader’s comments will be posted on the NZCPR Forum page click to view .

Send this page to a friend:

[Note: the page link will appear in the email]