A Mongrel Mob gang member was heckled - and police and security personnel stood guard - during a public meeting of Tauranga residents concerned about a spate of gun deaths and gang-related incidents in the city.
National Party leader and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges, who organised last night's meeting, said the city was "one step away from tragedy" and a stronger stance on crime was needed.
"I think we need to harass and disrupt gangs every day, otherwise it will grow like a cancer."
Police and security staff stood guard at the meeting, organised by the Opposition leader to discuss gang violence in the Bay of Plenty.
More than 100 people crowded into one of the rooms at the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club, with gang members and police spotted among the crowd.
Louise Hutchinson, the PR representative for the Mongrel Mob's Waikato chapter, invited Bridges to visit the chapter to see what it was like for himself.
The Waikato Mongrel Mob had only had two members incarcerated in the past six years, she said.
"Why are more people on meth there?" Bridges fired back. "Why have the leaders not handed in their guns?"
Fellow National MP Mark Mitchell, the party's justice spokesman, said as long as gang members wore patches, and continued with gang activity, the party would not visit the community.
The crowd heckled Hutchinson until she sat down.
Bridges said it was good to have gang members in the room, as it "kept things real" and that the issue of gangs was a tough, emotional conversation to have.
When he moved to Tauranga as a Crown prosecutor in 2001, he didn't see much gang activity, Bridges said. But that had changed.
"There are 1400 more patched gang members in New Zealand, according to police," he said. "We are one step away from tragedy."
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Bridges said he had received texts and messages from residents concerned about gang activity throughout the Tauranga area, but he urged people to be respectful.
Mitchell said gangs were a "scourge" on society.
Mitchell received a round of applause when he said he, as justice minister, would take a tough stance on gangs were National voted into government.
Bridges said gangs would need to lay down their guns and change their ways for the government to talk to gang members, rather than treating them like people, not statistics.
A social worker, who said gangs met a social need, asked Bridges whether he had sat down and tried to forge a connection with gang members.
"If there weren't gangs, there would not be a meth problem," Bridges replied.
He said he would not sit down with a patched gang member as he did not think they came from a sincere place.
"Gangs aren't cuddly, whānau-orientated organisations," Bridges said when asked what his definition of a gang was.
They had integral elements, such as violence, misogyny, guns and drugs, he said.
Another resident asked Bridges what the National Party would do to help people overcome addictions.
Bridges said this was a valid point.
"If you didn't have the demand you wouldn't have the supply."
However, he would never go along with the legalisation of cannabis, as the Government's policy did not include regulations on THC levels, he said.
A Papamoa resident, who recently heard gunshots in the area, voiced their concern with "parasite" gangs living in social housing units.
Bridges said that while this behaviour was not acceptable, he did not blame the Kainga Ora agency.
The best way to deal with this issue was to remind, remedy and remove social housing tenants if they did not abide by rules, he said.
Bridges said social investment was needed, with Māori urbanisation contributing to the issue, while being tough on crime.
The meeting followed a separate gathering facilitated by Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell and Western Bay of Plenty mayor Garry Webber at Baycourt last week.
Gang violence in the region
On January 27, the Faded 'N Bladed barbershop in Greerton was set on fire, two days after its front windows were smashed. Police believe the shop, which was yet to open, had links to the Mongols gang. This was followed by a shooting in Hairini the next day, on a house connected to the Mongrel Mob.
On February 12 there was a double homicide at Omanawa. The next night, a suspect in the murders, Anthony Fane, was fatally shot by police during a pursuit. On February 14, Fane's partner Jessielee Booth was found dead in her Brookfield home. Police treated her death as a "domestic incident".