Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Govt plans to get tough on gangs

Drug-sniffer beagles could soon be used at domestic airports and ferry terminals as part of a plan to intercept drug shipments and large amounts of cash moved around the country by gangs.

Police Minister Anne Tolley has sought advice on trialling drug dogs in air and maritime ports - including the Cook Strait ferry terminals - to detect shipments of illicit drugs, precursor ingredients, or large bundles of cash.

The minister said the dogs would only target drugs being transported by organised crime groups, and the beagles were trained to accurately sniff out more than $10,000 in cash, not single notes in a wallet.

"The idea of this wouldn't be to catch the odd person that has a cannabis joint in their pocket," she said.

"We really want to get the guys at the top who are moving large amounts of drugs around the country."

The proposal was one of a raft of measures designed to reverse a trend of increasing crime by people with gang connections, which rose 15 per cent in 2013.

There are around 4000 known gang members in this country, and they were disproportionately represented in homicide and domestic violence statistics.

Mrs Tolley said tackling gang problems required a broader approach which took into account the social factors which lead to gang involvement.

"The reality is we cannot arrest our way out of this issue," she said.

As well as more punitive proposals such as 24-hour GPS monitoring of released prisoners, Government wanted to extend rehabilitative policies such as giving gang members greater access to drug and alcohol treatment, education and job-training in prisons.

At the heart of the new National policy was a multi-agency intelligence unit based at Police National Headquarters in Wellington.

This would allow authorities to share information and attempt to monitor gangs in real time, while also identifying vulnerable children who required support or young people at risk of joining gangs.

Labour's justice spokesman Andrew Little said Labour fully backed any measure designed to tackle gang crime, but he believed many of the proposals were already in place. He said funding for many of National's ideas was far from certain, and the policy appeared to have been rushed together to give the appearance of progress.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said the multi-agency approach would enhance police's traditional enforcement approach to gangs.

He told TV3's Firstline that police had managed to "keep a lid" on gangs with the current approach, but they continued to grow and become more sophisticated.

"So you have to attack it at both ends. So one is, identify who the most organised and the most harmful groups are, and put a focus there," he said.

"But also we have to look at why young people, particularly young men, join gangs in the first place, and put some initiatives in place to discourage that happening. And even if they are in gangs, to put some initiatives in place which reduce their offending so they actually have a chance of a decent life -- and also, they're not victimising people."

Mr Bush said it was a multi-generational issue.

"The long-term approach means we're really doing this for the next generation. But we're also going to focus on some of those hardcore organised crime groups, even more than we are now, to ensure that they can't impact in a harmful way on communities."

Canterbury University sociologist and gang expert Jarrod Gilbert -- who authored the book Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand -- said the multi-agency approach should be encouraged.

"For too often really we've relied on police to solve the gang problem, as it's called, when really at its root there are social issues that need to be tackled," he told Radio New Zealand.

But Dr Gilbert questioned the figures being cited by the Government, saying it was "nonsense" that one in four people in prison were gang members.

There was also no research that showed gangs controlled the drug trade, he said.

"The gang problem and the drug problem are very separate things, and if we cast the net too narrow -- which we do -- then drug dealers who aren't in gangs, the vast majority of drug dealers, tend to go under the radar. And that is a problem, it's a problem for all of us."

Dr Gilbert said when gangs felt targeted, it promoted internal cohesion rather than breaking the gangs down.

"They feel like they're being attacked and so they create their own value systems to rebel against that. It creates perverse outcomes."

Tough on gangs
*New multi-agency Gang Intelligence Centre designed to track gangs in real time and identify vulnerable children within gangs
*New programmes to help support people to move away from gangs and new rehab measures for gang associates in jails
*Two new taskforces to focus on gang members international travel and drug trafficking within NZ, and to strength asset recovery from organisation crime groups
*Possible law changes to introduce bans on firearms for serious gang offenders, 24-hour GPS monitoring of gang associates for 2 years after prison release, and trials of drug dogs in domestic ports.

- NZ Herald

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